“And now a word, in uncouth rhyme
Of what shall be in future time

Then upside down the world shall be,
And gold found at the root of tree.
All England’s sons that plough the land,
Shall oft be seen with book in hand.
The poor shall now great wisdom know,
Great houses stand in farflung vale,
All covered o’er with snow and hail

A carriage without horse will go,
Disaster fill the world with woe.
In London, Primrose Hill shall be,
In centre hold a Bishop’s See

Around the world men’s thoughts will fly,
Quick as the twinkling of an eye.
And water shall great wonders do,
How strange. And yet it shall come true

— Old Mother Shipton (Ursula Southeil/Sontheil/Soothtell), c. 1488 – 1561.

A Soothsayer, Prophet, Witch, Visionary or merely fictitious character? The story of Mother Shipton is a curious one. Said to have been born in a cave in Knaresborough, Yorkshire though very little credible evidence of her existence actually exists today.

Though you can visit the cave she was allegedly born in, https://www.mothershipton.co.uk/ and experience the resounding impact her legend has left on the town of Knaresborough. In the same sense that there is no definite proof that Robin Hood ever actually existed, yet there is still a statue of him stood in the city of Nottingham, England (first reference of Robin Hood appeared in 1377).

There was a great deal of controversy surrounding Shipton’s prophecies, not only did the first publication appear some 80 years after her death. But it was admitted later that publications had been adjusted and forged. Though a great many of the original (claimed) predictions do paint an accurate picture of the world that came about. Automobiles, Education, Submarines, Air planes, Communication technology, Women wearing trousers and cutting their hair (which was unusual at that time).

The following is an excerpt from ‘The Life and Death of Mother Shipton’ by Richard Head c. 1637 – 1686, one of the oldest surviving records of Mother Shipton’s life. This excerpt describes the meeting of her mother Agatha and the Devil:

“This poor ignorant wretch easily believed what this Grand Deceiver of Man kind told her; and being ravish’t with the thoughts of being so highly prefer’d, she condescended to all the Devil would have her do: Whereupon he bid her say after him, in this manner: Raziel ellimi∣ham irammish ziragia Psonthonphanchia Raphael elhaveruna tapino∣tambecaz mitzphecat jarid cuman hapheah Gabriel Heydoncurris dungeonis philonomostarkes sophecord hankim. After she had repeated these words after him, he pluckt her by the Groin, and there immedi∣ately grew a kind of Let, which he instantly suckt, telling her that must be his constant Custom with her morning and evening; now did he bid her say after him again, Kametzeatuph Odel Pharaz Tumbagin Gall Flemmngen Victow Denmarkeonto.”

I chose to highlight this section specifically, because the book goes into great deal about Mother Shipton being the spawn of Satan and a hideously deformed child. Without discrediting the historical accuracy of this text, it seems very strange to me that the author has knowledge of the magical(?) incantations/language the devil had Agatha repeat to him. To me personally, I would have struggled to commit that kind of gibberish to memory to add to historical record. Sure, there are a few Biblical names scattered through the text, but some of the words seem entirely made up by the author (Heydoncurris?). How did Richard Head come into this knowledge? I could be wrong, but it does feel as though he took some creative license to paint a more interesting picture of Shipton’s strange origin in the Knaresborough cave.

Most famously, people credit Mother Shipton with the prediction of The Great Fire of London, of 1666.

‘The Diary of Samuel Pepys’, entry from Saturday 20th of October 1666:

“When the newes[sic] come of the burning of London; and all the Prince said was, that now Shipton’s prophecy was out.”

While I managed to find her brief reference in Pepys’ diaries, I couldn’t find any record of Shipton’s actual prophecy regarding the fire. Though it does give credibility to the notion that there was a character called ‘Shipton’ who was known to deal in prophecy, it is primarily hearsay interwoven with historical account.

Is it possible to accurately predict future events? Was there a deformed old woman in Knaresborough, 460 years ago who can/could somehow see us this very moment?

The tedious things about prophets and prophecy is you generally only ever hear about them once they’ve made an alleged accurate prediction of something major. By which time, it’s often too late to find it impressive. So what did this ability do for Shipton, aside from the story of her life and the tourist attraction in her name?

It’s believed she died a poor old woman but her memory lives on primarily now through the fluttering of little wings. Moths bearing the face of a hag on their wings are often called Mother Shipton moths, throughout England and Wales. So in the end, regardless of whether she was the daughter of Satan, a Prophet, a Witch or even just someone with an unfortunate reputation, to this day her memory lives on and takes flight every evening. Which isn’t a bad feat for a girl that was born in a cave, some 531 years ago.

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