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18 June 2014
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Myths and Legends
Mother Shipton
Mother Shipton as a witch

© Copyright Mother Shipton's Cave
The changing face of Mother Shipton

Mother Shipton and Cardinal Wolsey

Petrifying well
Mother Shipton's well
© Copyright Mother Shipton's Cave
The earliest surviving record of Mother Shipton is a pamphlet of 1641. The pamphlet, 'The Prophesie of Mother Shipton in the Raigne of King Henry the Eighth', describes the prophecy made by Mother Shipton about Henry VIII’s bishop Cardinal Wolsey. Wolsey had been made Archbishop of York in 1514, however, his involvement with affairs in London meant he had never visited the city. The Cardinal’s inability to convince Rome to annul the king’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon led to him being stripped of his powers and authority by the king, with the exception of the Archbishopric of York. With matters in London beyond his sphere of influence, he finally planned an overdue visit to York in 1529. Mother Shipton’s prophecy that the Cardinal would never reach the city was an attack on his authority and tantamount to treason. Perhaps the political sensitivity and vulnerability of the Cardinal’s position made prophecy particularly damaging?

The pamphlet describes how three men sent by the Cardinal visited Mother Shipton to issue a warning from him.

“shee said that Cardinall Wolsey should never come to Yorke with the King, and the Cardinall hearing, being angry, sent the Duke of Suffolke, the Lord Piercy, and the Lord Darcy to her”.

Mother Shipton themed water hole
© Copyright Mother Shipton's Cave
Her mysticism impressed the three spies and the tale quickly became the stuff of legends. Mother Shipton’s prophecy did indeed prove to be true, for during his approach to York, the Cardinal was called back to London and died on the journey. This fulfilled-prediction propelled Mother Shipton into national fame, proved in part by the pamphlet itself. Despite being written more than a century after her death, Mother Shipton required no introduction, proving she must have been a well-known figure.

In his recent study 'Mother Shipton, Witch and Prophetess', historian Arnold Kellet believes the pamphlet is “historically convincing” and contains proof that Mother Shipton did exist because of its restrained account of her prophecy. If this had been a fabricated tale about a mythical figure, a far more fabulous and sensational prophecy could have been written.

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Look back into the past using the Legacies' archives. Find nearly 200 tales from around the country in our collection.

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Scottish history: The witch hunt
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