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James Randi Educational Foundation

An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural

Introduction | "R" Reading | Curse of the Pharaoh | End-of-the-World Prophecies

Index | A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H | I | J | K | L | M | N | O | P | Q | R | S | T | U | V | W | Y | Z

Shipton, Mother No reference to Mother Shipton prior to 1641 is in existence. It is thus difficult to determine whether this English prophet actually existed as she is represented in folklore, though writings seriously ascribed to her are being reproduced even today. There were several women who claimed to be her, but it is a Yorkshire claimant who has won the title.
      Mother Shipton was Ursula Southill (or Sowthiel, or Southiel), the incredibly ugly daughter of Agatha Southill, known locally herself as a powerful witch. She is supposed to have been born in a cave at Dropping Well, Knaresborough, Yorkshire, in 1488, and because of her unfortunate appearance and reputed powers, was widely rumored to be the child of Satan.
      Sometime about 1512, she married a wealthy builder from York named Tobias Shipton. She soon attained considerable notoriety throughout England as “The Northern Prophetess,” and her prognostications received great public attention, were printed in pamphlets, and were widely distributed. Though copies of these publications still exist, most of what can be found today are mere forgeries, and many meteorological and astrological almanacs published as late as the nineteenth century used Mother Shipton's name freely. An 1838 book gives an idea of the overblown claims made for such tomes. It is titled The New Universal Dream-Book; or The Dreamer's Sure Guide to the Hidden Mysteries of Futurity —— By Mother Shipton.
      A 1686 book attributed to Edwin Pearson, The Strange and Wonderful History of Mother Shipton, because of its similarity to another book, Life and Death of Mother Shipton, was probably actually written by Richard Head, who also wrote The English Rogue, a racy account of his experiences with various tricksters, cheats, and rascals of his day.
      Many localized prophecies were invented to use the Shipton name to advantage. In a 1740 book by John Tyrrel, Past, Present and To Come: or, Mother Shipton's Yorkshire Prophecy, is quoted what might well have been issued as a genuinely pre-event prediction:  

      Time shall happen A Ship shall sail upon the River Thames, till it reach the City of London, the Master shall weep, and cry out, Ah! What a flourishing City was this when I left it! Unequalled throughout the World! But now scarce a House is left to entertain us with a Flagon.

      This prophecy has all of recorded time in which to be fulfilled, since no date is given or even suggested. Also, no cause of this calamity is specified. War, earthquake, or fire could all produce the cited effect. In fact, no disaster of a physical nature is inferred. Believers have declared that this is a prophecy of the Great Fire of London (1666), which is also said to have been foretold by Nostradamus and other seers.
      A perfect example of an unquestionably true Shipton “prediction” is the often-quoted and misquoted:  

      Eighteen hundred and thirty-five,
      Which of us shall be alive?
      Many a king shall end his reign
      Many a knave his end shall gain.

      Though one can hardly argue with this question and the two statements, the verse was resurrected at the end of 1934 with the change of “Eighteen” to “Nineteen.”
      The famous seeress died at age seventy-three in 1561 and is believed to be buried at Clifton, just outside the city of York. On her memorial is carved:

      Here lies she who never ly'd
      Whose skill so often has been try'd
      Her prophecies shall still survive
      And ever keep her name alive.

      This is said to be the only such tribute to a witch in all of England, since the usual memorial——if there is any——consists of nothing more than a cairn of stones to mark the spot where such a person was hanged or burned.
      New inventions on behalf of Mother Shipton continue to be published even today.

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Copyright (C) 1995-2007 James Randi.

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