Mother Shipton has been objectified in history for several hundred years. This eighteenth century mask demonstrates one of her many semblances – part of a puppet that appeared as a stage character, now owned by the V&A. The face of this strikingly ugly woman is adorned with beetle eyebrows, a warty nose and protruding chin, veiled by a wig of coarse dark hair. The back of the mask is hollow, revealing two small metal tubes that lead to circular openings at either side of the mouth, through which smoke would have been expelled as a stage trick. Made of carved and painted wood, this mask would have been part of a marionette, used in plays such as Martin Powell’s 1712 work Mother Shipton and the Downfall of Cardinal Wolsey.
But who was Mother Shipton?
Reputedly born in 1488 as Ursula Sontheil, in a cave beside the River Nidd in North Yorkshire, Sontheil married carpenter Tony Shipton, and her married name soon became part of her legacy. Shipton was a soothsayer who prophesied future events in the form of poems. The events that she predicted included the invention of iron ships, the Great Fire of London in 1666, and the defeat of the Spanish Armada; and also anticipating the fates of several significant rulers, both in her lifetime and beyond her death in 1561. One of Mother Shipton’s most renowned prophecies was detailed in the earliest surviving record of her life, a pamphlet from 1641. This prediction concerned one of Henry VIII’s bishops, cardinal Thomas Wolsey, with Shipton stating that ‘Cardinall Wolsey should never come to Yorke with the King’, despite being appointed as the city’s Archbishop. Indeed, Wolsey was subsequently arrested for high treason, and never set foot in York – such foreknowledge sealing Mother Shipton’s reputation. As her prophecies were recounted, published and analysed across the country, her accuracy generated startled responses among her contemporaries. In 1665, when the last major epidemic of the bubonic plague struck England, an astonished Samuel Pepys recorded that ‘now Shipton’s prophecy was out.’ In her own lifetime, and well into the seventeenth century, Mother Shipton continued to be remembered for prophetic abilities and her superstitious presence.
However, it was in the seventeenth century that the image of Mother Shipton began to be redesigned. As witchcraft hysteria reached its height across the country, Shipton became recognised as one of England’s most renowned witches. Her progression into the form of the archetypal witch climaxed in 1667 with the publication of Richard Head’s work The Life and Death of Mother Shipton, who noted that:
‘Her head was long, with sharp fiery eyes, her nose of an incredible and unproportionate length, having many crooks and turnings; adorned with many strange pimples of divers colors, as red, blue and dirt, which like vapors of brimstone gave such a lustre to her affrighted spectators in the dead time of the night, that one of them confessed several times in my hearing that her nurse needed no other light to assist her in her duties…’
Drawings of Shipton supposedly helped identify witches as grotesque and repulsive beings, and the manipulation of her image into the witch stereotype demonstrated the spread of the witchcraft paranoia across England. Yet whether the appropriation of Mother Shipton’s image was due to her naturally ugly appearance, or more due to the fact that she aptly fit the desired typecast of witches, is uncertain.
The many themes concerning witchcraft accusations, so prevalent during this time, have attracted a plethora of modern historiographical activity. In his study Mother Shipton, Witch and Prophetess, historian Arnold Kellet has stated his belief in the seventeenth century works and pamphlets discussing Shipton, describing them as ‘historically convincing’, because of their restrained accounts of her prophecy. If this had been a fabricated tale about a mythical figure, Kellet argues, surely far more fabulous and sensational prophecies could have been written. Yet if this is the case with the seventeenth century descriptions, the centuries since have certainly gone much further to sensationalise Shipton, each era appropriating her for a different reason. From 1700, the turmoil of the witchcraft trials that had overtaken England began to subside, with the revocation of laws enabling the prosecution of witches in 1736. The Age of Enlightenment thereby replaced a time when the occult was readily accepted as an everyday event and threat. Nevertheless, the compelling story of Mother Shipton lived on as a means of entertainment, continuing to fascinate and delight English audiences in plays and performances – as demonstrated by this stage mask.
Indeed, Shipton’s life continued to be resurrected and reshaped. In the nineteenth century, author Charles Hindley used Mother Shipton’s reputation to deceive the Victorian public, fabricating new and ‘previously undiscovered’ prophecies:
‘A house of glass shall come to pass
In England, but alas!
War will follow with the work
In the land of the pagan and the Turk’
This apparently references the Crystal Palace, constructed for the Great Exhibition of 1851 and destroyed by a fire in 1936, and the numerous late nineteenth century Boer wars. Yet whilst now known to be a nineteenth century creation, these prophecies caused alarm and excitement amongst the Victorian public, and further served to increase Mother Shipton’s status as a sensational figure. Indeed, her renewed/redesigned popularity was capitalised upon by entertainment companies, with some early Victorian theatres and fairs advertising her ‘appearance’. Here, a nineteenth century poster advertises a ‘new pedestrian equestrian and operatic extravaganza’ of May 1822, featuring a pantomime with ‘Harlequin’s Ancestors, or, Mother Shipton, Mother Bunch and Mother Goose’. Such utilisation of Shipton’s story for entertainment purposes some 400 years after her birth demonstrates how she had remained a figure of intrigue.
The fascination with Mother Shipton and her life indeed continued into the twentieth century, with a tourist attraction near to her place of birth testifying to the ongoing attraction to her myth. Reputedly a site of interest since 1630, ‘Mother Shipton’s cave and the petrifying well’ has been visited by several generations of families who continue to speculate about the woman behind the legend.
Certainly, Mother Shipton’s prophecies may not all be historically accurate, and the stories surrounding her life have undoubtedly been embellished over the centuries. However, she remains a legendary figure of romance and folklore entwined in the imagination and environment of English culture. Her prophecies and image were redesigned through the years to reflect current societal changes and climates. Indeed, since 1641, there have been around fifty published works concerning Mother Shipton and her prophecies, some purporting to tell her life story and prophecies in incredible detail.
The beliefs of each generation have changed substantially from era to era. Yet even in the light of rationality and empirical thought, people have chosen to rework Shipton’s legacy to suit the age – and still choose to believe or at least entertain such ideas that defy explanation. Whoever Mother Shipton was, the continual designing and redesigning of her life reminds us that the unknowable, superstition and myth are intrinsic not only to our past, but also our present and future.
In October 2013, a £35,000 fundraising campaign was begun to create a statue of the infamous prophesier in the North Yorkshire town in which she was born. Whether or not those who will design this twenty-first century version of Mother Shipton will choose to emulate the ugly features represented on the eighteenth century mask is yet to be seen. Nevertheless, the cave that marks the place of her birth remains open to visitors – as does the myth of Mother Shipton herself, which will undoubtedly continue to be revisited for several generations to come.
 ‘The Prophesie of Mother Shipton in the Raigne of King Henry the Eighth’ (1641), http://www.bbc.co.uk/legacies/myths_legends/england/north_yorkshire/
 For example, see Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic, (London, 1987)
 Arnold Kellett, Mother Shipton, Witch and Prophetess, (Maidstone, 2002)
 Dan Martin, Apocalypse: How to Survive a Global Crisis, (2011), p. 8
 ‘Knaresborough campaign for Mother Shipton statue’, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-york-north-yorkshire-24361476
Annie Thwaite –
Annie is in her second year on the Renaissance stream of the V&A/RCA HoD course, which she joined after doing her BA in History at Warwick University. Whilst exploring many areas of Renaissance material culture, she is particularly interested in the history of Reformation and Restoration England. Annie’s dissertation focuses on ritualistic objects used as apotropaic devices, and the dichotomy between magic and science in in early modern England. She also acts as co-editor in chief of Unmaking Things.
© Annie Thwaite, 2014. All Rights Reserved.