Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Shipton, Mother
SHIPTON, Mother, reputed prophetess, is, in all likelihood, a wholly mythical personage. No reference to her of earlier date than 1641 is extant. In that year there was published an anonymous tract entitled ‘The Prophecie of Mother Shipton in the Raigne of King Henry 8th, foretelling the death of Cardinall Wolsey, the Lord Percy, and others, as also what should happen in insuing Times’ (London, 4to). According to this doubtful authority, Wolsey, after his nomination to the archbishopric of York, learnt that ‘Mother Shipton’ had prophesied that he should never visit the city of York, and in consequence sent three friends, the Duke of Suffolk, Lords Percy and Darcy, to threaten her with punishment unless she recanted her prophecy. But the old woman stood firm, hospitably entertained the envoys, and at their invitation foretold in somewhat mysterious phraseology their own future fortunes and many events that were to befall the kingdom. Most of her predictions related to the city of York and its neighbourhood, but some of them were interpreted to mean the approach of the civil wars, and one to foretell the fire of London in 1666. The story of Wolsey's relations with ‘Mother Shipton’ is unconfirmed by contemporary evidence. The pamphlet, which bore on the title-page an alleged portrait of the prophetess, was probably compiled in York, and may have embodied some local traditions respecting a reputed witch named Shipton. But later local historians, while noticing her widespread reputation, adduce no corroborative testimony from local sources (cf. Drake, Eboracum, p. 450; Hargrove, Knaresborough; Notes and Queries, 4th ser. ii. 83–4). In all essentials the narrative of 1641 was doubtless a fiction to which current political excitement and some plausibility of invention lent interest. It at once achieved a large circulation, and the original edition became rare. Mr. E. W. Ashbee issued a facsimile reprint in 1869, and Charles Hindley included it in his ‘Miscellanea Antiqua Anglicana’ (1871, 8vo). Imitations were from the first numerous. One tract, of which only the title survives, supplied ‘A True Coppy of Mother Shipton's Last Prophesies: as they were taken from one Joane Waller in 1625, who died in March last 1641, being 94 yeares of age, of whom Mother Shipton had “prophesied that she would live to hear of Wars within this Kingdom but not to see them”’ (1641, 4to). Meteorological predictions of ‘Mother Shipton’ also multiplied. William Lilly [q. v.], the astrologer, in ‘A Collection of Ancient and Modern Prophesies’ (1645), quoted eighteen prophecies which had already been identified with ‘Mother Shipton's’ shadowy name, and showed that sixteen had been duly fulfilled, while the fulfilment of the remaining two was confidently anticipated. All ranks of society admitted the prophetess's foresight. Pepys relates that when Prince Rupert heard, while sailing up the Thames, on 20 Oct. 1666, of the outbreak of the fire of London, ‘all he said was, now Shipton's prophecy was out’ (Pepys, Diary, ed. Wheatley, vi. 30).
Richard Head [q. v.] is responsible for a further extension of ‘Mother Shipton's’ fame. In 1667 he published what purported to be a full account of her ‘Life and Death.’ He represented her as the daughter of the devil. According to Head, her hideous aspect and power of prophesying disaster, of which he invented numerous instances, fully attested her paternity. Head's imaginary biography, which was often republished, and was reprinted by Edwin Pearson in 1871, was further developed in an anonymous ‘Strange and Wonderful History of Mother Shipton’ (London, 1686, 4to). It was there stated that she was born in July 1488, near Knaresborough, and was baptised by the abbot of Beverley as Ursula Sonthiel; at twenty-four she married Toby Shipton, a carpenter of Shipton, and, after enjoying a wide reputation as a necromancer and prophetess, died at Clifton in 1561. An undated play of Head's day by Thomas Thomson, called ‘Mother Shipton her Life,’ assigned to her those relations with the devil with which earlier writers credited her mother, but the dramatist eked out his comedy by thefts from Massinger's ‘City Madam’ and Middleton's ‘Chaste Maid of Cheapside;’ it was acted for nine days, apparently in 1668. In 1669 the editor of ‘Fragmenta Prophetica, or the Remains of George Wither,’ wrote with contempt of ‘Mother Shipton's’ assured reputation. Steele, in the ‘Spectator,’ No. 17, described the old woman who was the chief toast of his imaginary ‘Ugly Club’ as ‘the very counterpart of Mother Shipton.’
Innumerable chapbooks, chiefly published in the north of England, have since repeated ‘Mother Shipton's’ prophecies in various forms, and ‘Mother Shipton's Fortune-telling Book’ still maintains its authority with the credulous. In 1862 Charles Hindley reprinted in a garbled version the 1687 edition of Head's life, and introduced some verses the composition of which he referred to 1448, foretelling the invention of the steam-engine and the electric telegraph, and the end of the world in 1881. These verses attracted wide attention, but in 1873 Hindley confessed to having forged them (Notes and Queries, 4th ser. xi. 355).
Besides the so-called portraits—of a hideous old woman—which figure in the seventeenth-century tracts and in the later adaptations, many other spurious memorials of ‘Mother Shipton’ are extant. A sculptured stone, which was long supposed to mark her grave at a spot between Clifton and Shipton, Yorkshire, is really a mutilated effigy of a knight in armour, doubtless taken from a tomb in the neighbouring St. Mary's Abbey; it is now in the museum of the Yorkshire Philosophical Society at York. Another stone called ‘Old Mother Shipton's tomb,’ which stands on the high road at Williton, near the mansion of Orchard Wyndham in Somerset, has been proved to be a modern copy of a Roman tablet which was figured in Gordon's ‘Itinerarium Septentrionale’ (William George, Old Mother Shipton's Tomb, Bristol, 1879). A fanciful picture of the prophetess in a chariot drawn by a reindeer is engraved in the ‘Wonderful Magazine,’ 1793 (vol. ii.). A fine moth (Euclidia Mi) has been popularly called the ‘Mother Shipton’ moth, from the resemblance of the marks on its wings to an old woman's profile with hooked nose and upturned chin.[Authorities cited in text; Mother Shipton's and Nixon's Prophecies, with an introduction by S. Baker, London, 1797; Harrison's Mother Shipton Investigated, 1881; Notes and Queries, 4th ser. passim, 9th ser. i. 163; Mother Shipton, Manchester, 1882; Journal of British Archæological Assoc. xix. 308; Hazlitt's Handbook.]