Mother Shipton

(fl. c. 1520—1559) supposed witch and prophetess

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According to popular belief, Mother Shipton lived in Tudor times and foretold many major events in English history. A chapbook of 1641 alleges she was born at Knaresborough (Yorkshire) in 1488 and died in her seventies; however, these details may be inaccurate. A later one (1684) is frankly fabulous, making her a devil's child and a witch. Prophecies attributed to her were exploited in the Civil War.

In 1862 Charles Hindley, a hack writer and publisher, reprinted one of the old chapbooks, adding some rhyming ‘prophecies’ of his own invention, concluding dramatically:The world then to an end shall comeIn eighteen hundred and eighty-one.

These verses caused considerable alarm among the lower classes. Hindley later confessed he had written them himself (N&Q 4s:11 (1873), 355). Even so, there was panic when the Doomsday year arrived, especially around Brighton (Sussex), where Hindley's pamphlet had been printed; people deserted their homes and spent the nights praying in the fields. A few years earlier there had been a brief local panic in Somerset, because Mother Shipton was said to have prophesied that at midday on Good Friday 1879 Ham Hill would be swallowed by an earthquake and Yeovil destroyed by a flood (Pall Mall Gazette (Apr. 1879)).

Mother Shipton is still a tourist attraction at Knaresborough, where pamphlets about her are available; during most of the 20th century the Doomsday prediction appeared, but altered to read ‘In nineteen hundred and ninety-one’.

From A Dictionary of English Folklore in Oxford Reference.

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