SHIPTON, MOTHER, a witch and prophetess who is supposed to have lived in early Tudor times. There is no really trustworthy evidence as to her ever having existed, but tradition has it that her maiden-name was Ursula Southill, Sowthiel or Southiel, and her parents were peasants, living near the Dropping Well, Knaresborough, Yorkshire. The date of her birth is uncertain, but it is placed about 1486-1488. Her mother, Agatha Southill, was a reputed witch, and Ursula from her infancy was regarded by the neighbours as " the Devil's child." The girl's appearance seems to have been such as to encourage superstitions. Richard Head in his Life and Death of Mother Shipton (1684) says, " the body was of indifferent height, her head was long, with sharp fiery eyes, her nose of an incredible and unproportionate length, having many crooks and turnings, adorned with many strange pimples of divers colours, as red, blue and dirt, which like vapours of brimstone gave such a lustre to her affrighted spectators in the dead time of the night, that one of them confessed several times in my hearing that her nurse needed no other light to assist her in her duties " Allowing for the absurdity of this account, it certainly seems (if any reliance is to be placed on the so-called authorities) that the child was phenomenally plain and deformed. While still at school she became known as a prophetess. When about twenty-four she married a builder of York, Tobias Shipton.
Her most sensational prophecies had to do with Cardinal Wolsey, the duke of Suffolk, Lord Percy and other men prominent at the court of Henry VIII. There is a tradition that on one occasion the abbot of Beverley, anxious to investigate the case for himself, visited Mother Shipton's cottage disguised, and that no sooner had he knocked than the old woman called out " Come in, Mr Abbot, for you are not so much disguised but the fox may be seen through the sheep's skin." She is said to have died at Clifton, Yorkshire, in 1561, and was buried there or at Shipton. Her whole history rests on the flimsiest authority, but her alleged prophecies have had from the 17th century until quite recently an extraordinary hold on the popular imagination. In Stuart times all ranks of society believed in her, and referring to her supposed foretelling of the Great Fire, Pepys relates that when Prince Rupert heard, while sailing up the Thames on the zoth of October 1666, of the outbreak of the fire " all he said was, ' now Shipton's prophecy was out.' " One of her prophecies was supposed to have menaced Yeovil, Somerset, with an earthquake and flood in 1879, and so convinced were the peasantry of the truth of her prognostications that hundreds moved from their cottages on the eve of the expected disaster, while spectators swarmed in from all quarters of the county to see the town's destruction. The suggestion that Mother Shipton had foretold the end of the world in 1881 was the cause of the most poignant alarm throughout rural England in that year, the people deserting their houses, and spending the night in prayer in the fields, churches and chapels. This latter alleged prophecy was one of a series of forgeries to which Charles Hindley, who reprinted in 1862 a garbled version of Richard Head's Life, confessed in 1873.
See Richard Head, Life and Death of Mother Shipton (London, 1684); Life, Death and the whole of the Wonderful Prophecies of Mother Shipton, the Northern Prophetess (Leeds, 1869); W. H. Harrison, Mother Shipton investigated (London, 1881); Journ. of Brit. Archaeo. Assoc. xix. 308. Mother Shipton's and Nixon's Prophecies, with an introduction by S. Baker (London, 1797).
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)