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The Unusual Times
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The Woman who Predicted the End of the World: The Uncanny Tale of England’s ‘Nostradamus’

“Carriages without horses shall go, And accidents fill the world with woe. Around the world thoughts shall fly, In the twinkling of an eye.”

In this neat little poem, 16th Century prophetess Mother Shipton seemed to predict the introduction of the car and the coming of modern telecommunication (not bad for someone born in a cave in Yorkshire in 1486). Did Shipton really have the awe-inspiring power to peel back the curtains of space-time and view the future? 

Not only was Ursula Sontheil born hideously ugly, but her childhood was constantly interrupted by what today would be described as poltergeist activity (the spontaneous levitation must have been distracting). The cave in which she was born lay next to a petrifying well in Knaresborough, Yorkshire. As she grew older, locals sought out Sontheil for her wisdom and powers of second sight. When she married and had children she became known simply as Mother Shipton.

‘The Prophesie of MotherShipton in the Raigne of King Henry the Eighth’ was published in 1641. This pamphlet opens with the prediction that made her famous: in 1530, when she heard that the controversial Cardinal Wolsey intended to make his very first visit to York, she declared that though he would see the city, he would never reach it. Furious at this unfavourable forecast from a ‘meddlesome hag’, Wolsey dispatched three men to spy on her and to pass on the message that the Cardinal would have her burned at the stake upon his arrival. Mother Shipton laughed at this threat and repeated her prophecy.

Three days before his planned trip, Wolsey was arrested on a charge of high treason and never did reach York. He had, however, seen the city from a nearby tower shortly before his arrest, rendering the prediction uncannily accurate.

News of this story spread across a deeply superstitious England, and Mother Shipton became the nation’s favourite mystic. After a long life, during which she shared many of her prophetic visions, she passed away (in or around 1560) but her reputation refused to die.

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