Mother Shipton’s Cave – HeritageDaily


Mother Shipton’s Cave is a small cave in North Yorkshire, England, associated with the legendary diviner and prophetess, Mother Shipton.

According to the text by 17th century authors, Richard Head, and later by J. Conyers, Ursula Southeil (known as Mother Shipton), was born in 1488 in the market town of Knaresborough.

Both authors note that her mother, Agatha Soothtale, was a poor and desolate 15-year-old orphan who fell under the influence of the devil and engaged in an affair, while some legends suggest that Agatha was a witch who invoked the devil to conceive a child.

Shipton was born in a cave by the River Nidd during a severe thunderstorm. She was described as deformed with a hunchback and bulging eyes, giggling at the rumble of thunder that caused raging thunderstorms to dissipate.

The petrifying well – Image credit: Dreamstime (Copyright)

The cave sits next to a geological wonder called the Petrifying Pit. The waters of the well are rich in sulphates and carbonates which contain objects with a stony exterior. In the past, it was believed to be the result of magic or sorcery that could turn objects into stone, but it is a natural phenomenon due to a process of evaporation and deposition in waters with unusually high mineral content.

After her birth, Agatha was dragged before the local magistrate, but refused to reveal the father’s identity, leaving Agatha and her daughter to be cast out of society and forced to reside in the cave for shelter. There she studied the forest, flowers, and herbs, and made remedies and potions as a herbalist for the townspeople.

Growing up, Shipton was mocked and teased by townspeople for her crooked nose, hunchback and crooked legs, with one account in 1686 describing an incident where leading parishioners called her “witch face”. and “devil’s bastard”.

The petrifying pit – Image credit: Alamy (Copyright)

Despite the scorn of the townspeople, she found love in the arms of a carpenter named Tobias Shipton and took his name after their marriage. Tobias died in 1514, leaving Shipton heartbroken and in despair, but despite her grief, the townspeople blamed her for her husband’s death and claimed that witchcraft was in progress.

Shipton retired to the woods, pursuing her art of herbalism and embracing her reputation as a healer, diviner, and prophetess. Her prophecies may even have caught the attention of King Henry VIII, who wrote a letter in 1537 to the Duke of Norfolk in which he mentions a “witch of York”.

In 1666 Samuel Pepys recorded in his diary that while surveying the damage done to London by the Great Fire of 1666 in the company of the Royal Family, he overheard them discussing Mother Shipton’s prophecy of the event.

She is also mentioned in Daniel Defoe’s “A Journal of the Plague Year” written in 1722, referring to the year 1665, when the bubonic plague broke out in London: “Here lives a fortune-teller, Here lives an astrologer, Here you may have your nativity calculated, etc.; and the brass head of Brother Bacon, which was the usual sign of the habitations of these people, was to be seen almost in every street, or else the sign of Mother Shipton.

Today, the petrifying well is England’s oldest tourist attraction. It was first recorded by the king’s antiquarian in 1538 and has been visited by millions since 1630.

Header image credit: Shutterstock (Copyright)


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