‘ Near this Petrifying Well I first drew breath, as records tell.’ These words, together with the portrait of an ugly woman, signify The Mother Shipton Inn, which stands at the entrance to the Nidd Gorge, Low Bridge at Knaresborough in North Yorkshire. Legendary sorceress and soothsayer, Old Mother Shipton, was born in a nearby cave in 1488 and died in 1561 when she was 73 years old. Close to the cave on the banks of the River Nidd is the ancient Dropping Well whose waters have mystical powers of turning everyday articles to stone.
Born Ursula Southill, she married York builder Tobias Shipton when she was 24. ‘She was very morose, big boned; her head was long with great goggling, sharp and fiery eyes; her nose of an incredible and unproportionate length, having in it many crooks and turnings and adorned with many strange purples and diverse colours, which like vapours of brimstone gas, gave such a lustre in the dead of night.’ So said a contemporary writer who went on to say, ‘ She had in addition a chin of the nutcracker order, yellow skin shrivelled and wrinkled, with one solitary big tooth standing out of her mouth like a tusk. Her neck was so distorted that her right shoulder supported her head, her legs crooked, with feet and toes turned towards her left side so that when she walked to the right it seemed as if she were travelling to the left.’ That may be so, but her understanding was extraordinary and her strange powers of prophesy became known throughout the land. Over one hundred years after her death, Samuel Pepys had recorded in his diary that Mother Shipton had foretold the Great Fire of London. Her predictions were widespread, she is said to have foretold of the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the defeat of the Armada, the Civil War, the Great Plague and so on. ‘Carriages without horses shall go, and accidents fill the world with woe. Around the world thoughts shall fly in the twinkling of an eye. Iron in the water shall float as easy as a wooden boat. Gold shall be found, and found in a land that’s not now known,’ is how some of her predictions are quoted. In his Collection of Prophesies of 1645, astrologer W.Lilly quoted that sixteen of Mother Shipton’s predictions had been fulfilled. Many people thought she was a witch, especially Cardinal Wolsey whom she predicted would never be enthroned as Archbishop of York. Wolsey apparently sent a message to tell her that when he did enter York, he would burn her as a witch. Fortunately for her she was right. Equally fortunate, one of her predictions did not come true – the end of the world in 1881!
It is possible to visit Old Mother Shipton’s Cave and the Petrifying Well.
I understand that this real ale pub has now changed its name to The Dropping Well. Like all pubs it is struggling to keep going.
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Photo taken in Knaresborough, North Yorkshire, UK
Misplaced? Suggest new location