Mother Shipton’s Cave

096 Entrance 3

I’ve been away in York for the past five days, during which time we visited several interesting sites. We decided to go to York initially to visit a Viking Village at Murton on Saturday, but we managed to fill the rest of the days very nicely, too. I must apologise for not visiting blogs at this time, as the internet connection in the hotel was more off than on. I hope to get to as many as I can in the next few days.

Anyway, the Mother Shipton site was the first one we visited and here’s some information about it.

Mother Shipton’s Cave – a site which also includes the Petrifying Well – has been England’s oldest visitor attraction since 1630. It’s located in the historic market town of Knaresborough, four miles east of Harrogate, in North Yorkshire, UK.

Map of North Yorkshire, UK. Author Nilfanion, created using O.S. data. Creative Commons.

The actual cave was home to England’s most famous clairvoyant and prophetess – Mother Shipton herself:

063 Mother Shipton in her cave
Sculpture of Mother Shipton in her cave

This famous attraction sits in unspoilt parkland, a remnant of the once extensive Royal Forest of Knaresborough. The park lies along the banks of the River Nidd, which at this stage, flows through a gorge created by a glacier during the last Ice Age, 12 000 years ago.

There are many lovely views across the river. Some simply look over to the buildings of the town, others to the gorge and Knaresborough Castle sitting atop it. And across an impressive, roaring weir is the old mill, aptly known as Castle Mill. There are also great views of the viaduct carrying the railway, and the lower (in height) bridge known at the High Bridge.

As our visit was during the Easter holidays, a special children’s event was running, this one with the theme of Alice in Wonderland. It involved some of the staff dressing up in costumes, such as the Queen of Hearts, the Mad Hatter and White Rabbit. Children seemed to be enjoying the fun:

Both Mother Shipton’s Cave and the Petrifying Well are natural geological features which can be found close to each other on the site. The latter never fails to fascinate visitors from near and far. It was first opened to the general public in 1630:

Any object left in this well for a period of months/years becomes ‘stony’ on the exterior. It’s a natural phenomenon, due to the evaporation of water with a high mineral content. Nowadays, objects from various ‘celebrities’ have been left to undergo transformation. But at one time, these strange occurrences at the Petrifying Well were believed to be the result of magic or witchcraft. People believed if they just touched the water they would be turned into stone.

So, just who was Mother Shipton . . . ?

Mother Shipton was born on a stormy night in 1488, with the name of Ursula Southeil. Her fifteen-year-old mother, Agatha, gave birth in the cave after being banished for refusing to reveal the name of the father of her unborn child. After two years of a struggling to survive in the cave, the fate of the mother and child became known to the Abbot of Beverley, who decided to help them.  Little Ursula was taken into the home of a local family, but her mother was sent to a convent in Nottinghamshire, here she died two years later.

As a child, Ursula grew to love Knaresborough and often played along the banks of the Nidd. At school she far surpassed other children at reading and writing, but her looks were what most people saw as ugly. The other children taunted her and ridiculed her long, crooked nose, bent back and twisted legs. They even claimed she took her revenge, and could feel her by pulling their hair and pushing them to the ground – when she was nowhere near.

Mother Shipton 2
Old engraving of Mother Shipton. Author Unknown. Public Domain.

Ursula soon realised that she much preferred to be on her own, and came to spend most of her time in the cave. Despite having no memory of having lived there, she claimed it drew her back. She learnt much about the forest, its plants and herbs, and how to make cures for ailments and various potions. She also discovered, she was able to predict the future, and her prophecies are what she became famous for.

At twenty four, Ursula  met and married Thomas Shipton, a carpenter from York. For two years they were very happy, but Thomas died young – before any children had been born. But Ursula kept the name of Shipton, and as she aged, the title of ‘Mother’ was added to it. She died in 1561 at the age of seventy three, but her prophecies lived on . . .

Mother Shipton made many prophecies, several about people who lived during or just after her own lifetime. She predicted the end of the Catholic Church in England under Henry VIII and the fall of Cardinal Wolsey. She also foretold the death of Henry’s son, Edward VI, the ‘bloody’ events of Mary’s reign and that her sister, Elizabeth, would take the throne. Mother Shipton also foretold the coming of the Spanish Armada and, according to the diary of Samuel Pepys, the Great Fire of London in 1666.

Other predictions relate to later times, including the coming of iron ships (in the 1830s). There are dozens of these prophecies, which can easily be found online. But we need to bear in mind that many people believe them to be fake – like this one, which did not appear until 1862:

The world to an end shall come
In eighteen hundred and eighty one.

Its true author, Charles Hindley, later admitted in print that he had invented it.

In the 17th century, when witch hysteria hit England, the image of Mother Shipton gradually changed from prophetess to witch. She became known as one of England’s most renowned witches. This moth – known as the Mother Shipton Moth – got its name because of the markings on its wings, which resemble an old hag’s head. They are common over much of the British Isles, and can be seen in May and June in the woods around Mother Shipton’s Cave:

Mother Shipton Moth 2
Mother Shipton Moth, named after the pattern on the wings resembling the face of a hag. Author Callistege – mi_02 (xndr). User: Sydmolen. Creative Commons.

55 thoughts on “Mother Shipton’s Cave

    1. It is an unusual site, Lynn, and only the second time I’ve visited. The first was fifteen years ago. Mother Shipton’s life story is sad but her prophecies are still debated today. Many are definitely fake and obviously written at a later date. Thanks, Lynn.

  1. Very interesting! The photos are all very lovely! What a sad life Ursula and Agatha had. It is so interesting that Mother Shipton predicted all those events and they came true.

    1. The stories about her tell us she predicted those events, but I have no idea whether the stories come from primary sources or were written later. It would be something for me to look into when I have the time. The one about predicting iron ships is thought to be false, as well as many others relating to times much later than Mother Shipton’s life. Thanks, PJ.

    1. It is very interesting, and all wrapped up in the old 17th century ideas about witchcraft – which is how the Petrifying Well became linked to Mother Shipton. But not until the century after her death. Thank you, Freda.

  2. Haven’t been to Mother Shipton’s cave for 30 years, but it’s the place I alway remember as one of our first dates when the kids ask where we went on our first date. Great to see you celebrating her story 🙂

    1. Thirty years is a long time – perhaps a re-run is due. 🙂 It’s certainly a memorable place for one of your first dates, and a definite topic of conversation during family ‘get togethers’ on your your wedding anniversary. 🙂

      1. Hubby gave me a surprise trip to Leeds on our 19th anniversary, because he thought it was our 20th. So I’m thinking we should do Leeds again on our 29th and visit Mother Shipton during that one.

      2. I take it your 29th anniversary isn’t too far off? I hope you enjoy it and it lives up to your expectations. It hadn’t changed much since we were there fifteen years ago, but 30 years is a long time between visits! 🙂

      3. I forgot to add a’well done’ to your hubby for getting the year of your anniversary wrong. I suppose the appropriate response would be, ‘How typical of a man’! but I hate to generalise. We all make mistakes – and at least he didn’t forget your anniversary altogether.

  3. Your story about Mother Shipton is very fascinating, I enjoyed every word and grasped them so quickly! Pictures are fantastic, thank you!

    1. Thank you Ann. I’m really glad you enjoyed the story. Mother Shipton had a sad life, all in all, but her predictions are still talked about today. Many of the later ones have proven to be fake. The Petrifying Well is interesting, too. 🙂

    1. There are lots of people who’ve never heard of Mother Shipton, Cameron, especially those who live a long way from the site. I’m sure there are many stories around Britain that I haven’t heard of, either! It’s interesting to find out about them, though. I knew very little about King Alfred, or White Horse Hill, until I lived in Wantage. 🙂

    1. Thank you, Prabhat. Yes, it’s all quite mystical and wrapped up in folklore. It’s hard to say whether her story is all true, as I don’t know how much comes from primary sources. Many of the predictions regarding later centuries are believed to be fake, including the one about ships being made of iron.

      1. Very true. There are many things about the past we’ll never know the real truth about, but how interesting it is to speculate. 🙂

    1. Hi Az. I’m still on your blog at the moment but got called away for a moment. I’ll get back there soon. I haven’t connected with you for a while, probably because I’ve done very little flash fiction lately. Yes, I’m well and hope you are too. Thanks for liking my post, too!

    1. In very early days, the well was thought to have medicinal properties. It only became associated with witchcraft and Mother Shipton during the following century and the witch hysteria that swept the country, particularly under Oliver Cromwell’s ‘rule’. There is another well with these properties at Matlock Bath in Derbyshire.
      Thanks, Joy. Hope the writing/editing is going well.

  4. How interesting Millie! I think I would have enjoyed the Alice in Wonderland theme as much as the kids 😀 Love the Queen of Hearts sitting there. Wow, that bicycle…how fascinating. Thank you for ‘taking’ us there! Love the pictures!

    1. The ‘Alice’ characters were excellent, and played their parts so well. The Queen of Hearts terrified one or two young children when she accused them of stealing her tarts! The older ones just laughed. She certainly had a commanding presence. The bicycle is brilliant and was given by some celebrity or other to petrify. The stony effect is only on the exterior (not the entire object as in true petrification) but it looks very effective. In the museum shop they sell ‘stone’ teddy bears that have been in the well. It’s a fun place to visit and is lovely when the trees are in leaf in the summer. Thank you for reading, Antonia. 🙂

    1. It’s definitely worth a visit, if only to see the Petrifying Well. But the woodlands and the riverside walks are very pretty, too. Thanks for visiting, Rockhopper. 🙂

    1. Thanks, Cynthia. It’s an unusual site, and interesting because Mother Shipton’s story is one that appeals to people – sad but fascinating. The setting along the River Nidd, with the views across the river is also lovely. 🙂

    1. Thank you! Knaresborough is a lovely old town, with many very old buildings there. The old manor house is over 400 years old, and still going strong.

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  6. A most excellent post… Beautiful photographs and very catching to the eye as well as interesting…
    I learnt many things due to your thorough post, dear Millie… Starting with Mother Shipton’s Cave and its natural properties, alongside the Sculpture of Mother Shipton keeping up with her myth, so to speak… It is interesting how a Catholic figure, or at least a mere prophetess becomes pagan, somehow… in this sense, the moth´s nickname is certainly eloquent…
    Thanks for yet another great reading… All my best wishes. Aquileana ⭐️.-
    PS… I have nominated you for an award… look for your name at the end of this post

    1. Thank you for that great comment, Aquileana. Mother Shipton was a sad but intriguing character. If she had been born a hundred years later, she would most likely have been burned as a witch.
      Thank you also for the nomination for the award. I’ll certainly be over to read your post as soon as I can. Best wishes to you, too. 🙂

      1. It was an experience the girls will always keep with them. They will be writing about it in the upcoming weeks.
        We disable comments but I will continue to comment on the blogs we have closely followed.
        Please don’t hesitate to comment on something you see on the girls blog on your blog if that makes any sense!

      2. I wondered why I couldn’t comment – I always like to say something! I’m green with envy that you got to the Galapagos, and look forward to reading your posts about your experiences there.

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