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Ursula Southeil (c. 1488–1561) (also variously spelt as Ursula Southill, Ursula Soothtell or Ursula Sontheil), better known as Mother Shipton, is said to have been an English soothsayer and prophetess. The first publication of her prophecies, which did not appear until 1641, eighty years after her reported death, contained a number of mainly regional predictions, but only two prophetic verses – neither of which foretold the End of the World, despite widespread assumptions to that effect.
One of the most notable editions of her prophecies was published in 1684. It states that she was born in Knaresborough, Yorkshire, in a cave now known as Mother Shipton's Cave which, along with the Petrifying Well and associated parkland, is operated as a visitor attraction. She was reputed to be hideously ugly. The book also claims that she married Toby Shipton, a local carpenter, near York in 1512 and told fortunes and made predictions throughout her life.
It is recorded in the diaries of Samuel Pepys that whilst surveying the damage to London caused by the Great Fire in the company of the Royal Family they were heard to discuss Mother Shipton's prophecy of the event.
The most famous claimed edition of Mother Shipton's prophecies foretells many modern events and phenomena. Widely quoted today as if it were the original, it contains over a hundred prophetic rhymed couplets in notably non-16th-century language and includes the now-famous lines:
The world to an end shall come
In eighteen hundred and eighty one.
However, this version did not appear in print until 1862, and its true author, one Charles Hindley, subsequently admitted in print that he had invented it. This invented prophecy has appeared over the years with different dates and in (or about) several countries (for example in the late 1970s many news articles about Mother Shipton appeared setting the date at 1981). The 1920s (subsequently much reprinted) booklet The Life and Prophecies of Ursula Sontheil better known as Mother Shipton stated the date as 1991.
Among other well-known lines from Hindley's fake version (often quoted as if they were original) are:
A Carriage without a horse shall go;
Disaster fill the world with woe...
In water iron then shall float,
As easy as a wooden boat.
Quite who Mother Shipton was or what exactly she said is not definitively known. What is certain is that her name became linked with many tragic events and strange goings on recorded all over the UK, Australia and North America throughout the 17/18/19th centuries. Many fortune tellers used her effigy and statue, presumably for purposes of association marketing. Many pubs were named after her. Only two survive, one near her birthplace in Knaresborough (now renamed the Dropping Well) and the other in Portsmouth where there is a statue of her above the door.
A caricature of Mother Shipton was used in early pantomime and is believed by historians to be the forerunner of the Panto dame.
In 2013 a £35,000 fundraising campaign was launched to create a statue of her in Knaresborough.
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