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.