Saturday, 18 February 2012

Who Was Mother Shipton?

Mother Shipton and Cardinal Wolsey

On a dark and stormy night in 1488 a young woman lay in a dark cave on the banks of the River Nidd in Knaresborough in North Yorkshire struggling to give birth to her illegitimate daughter.  As the rain lashed down and the lightning crackled across the sky, Agnes Sontheil laboured through the night until her baby was born.  The young mother called her infant daughter Ursula and the cave was to be their home for the next two years.  Eventually, after the Abbott of Beverley brought pressure to bear, the small child was removed from her mother and the cave, and placed in the care of a respectable local family. When Ursula Sontheil grew up she married a carpenter from the city of York called Tom Shipton in 1512.

Ursula Shipton, or Mother Shipton as she became known as, started a career of telling fortunes and creating prophetic poems.  The local people, who were very wary and superstitious, believed that she was a witch.  This belief was reinforced by her appearances, because by many accounts MotherShipton was disfigured and deformed, unable to walk without the aid of a stick and with a large hooked nose on her terrifyingly ugly face.  She was so taunted and bullied by her neighbours that she began spending most of her time back in the cave where she had been born, wandering in the local woods looking for the herbs and healing plants that she used in her remedies and potions.

Mother Shipton lived during the reign of the Tudor King Henry VIII, and she confirmed her reputation as an incredibly accurate soothsayer when she made a prediction concerning Cardinal Wolsey, Henry’s powerful Lord Chancellor and Archbishop of York.  Cardinal Wolsey’s influence over Henry VIII was on the wane when she made a prophecy that he would never get to see York in his lifetime, even though he was the appointed Archbishop of that city.  The mighty statesman was, not surprisingly, unimpressed with this prediction, and moved swiftly to prove Mother Shipton wrong.  He sent three Lords from his retinue to remonstrate with her and to get her to withdraw what she had said, but she merely laughed in their faces.  Even when they threatened to have her burned at the stake as a witch unless she kept her mouth shut, she did not back down and just repeated her prediction that the great Cardinal would never set his eyes on the city of York.

This intransigence so incensed Cardinal Wolsey that he immediately set out to travel to York.  He reached a place called Cawood Tower, some ten miles south of the city, when his travelling party was forced to stop for the night.  Determined to get his first sight of the city, the Cardinal made to climb the tower, but before he could do it he was arrested by the King’s men on a charge of high treason.  The accuracy of this prophecy struck fear into the hearts of many, and she was now feared as well as reviled.

Mother Shipton reputedly lived until 1561, which would have made her an elderly lady of 73 when she died. During her life she had spoken her predictions, not written them, and it wasn’t until around 1641 that the first book recording her prophecies was produced.  This book was put together by a lady called Joanne Waller who compiled it just before she died at the age of 94.  She claimed that she had heard the predictions directly from Mother Shipton herself, so she must have been talking to the famous soothsayer in the last few years of her life.

Since this first publication of Mother Shipton’s prophecies, there have been over fifty other editions of her sayings.  With many of these predictions, it is very questionable as to how many of them were ever uttered by Mother Shipton, or were made up in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  One of the most famous was her supposed prediction about the end of the world coming in 1881, but as we are still here over a hundred years later this one, thankfully, did not come true.  Various other dates were quoted in different publications and in different countries, but probably none of them came from the lips of Mother Shipton.  Other famous predictions were the Civil War in England, the coming of iron ships and Samuel Pepys wrote in his famous diary that while they were surveying the damage wrought by the Great Fire of London that he had overheard people talking about Mother Shipton prophesying the fiery conflagration.

Of course the reality is that we do not even really know if Mother Shipton was an historical figure or just a local legend. The cave where she was born, and brewed her healing potions is now a major tourist attraction in Knaresborough called Mother Shipton’s Caves.  The caves also feature a local curiosity called the Petrifying Well.  Since the Middle Ages people have hung objects in the waters of the Petrifying Well and returned a couple of months later to find that they have been turned to stone.  In earlier times it would be dead animals and birds and things like wigs that would be left in the well, but these days teddy bears are hung in the water, and once they have petrified they are sold in the Gift Shop.  The Petrifying Well is fed from the waters of the Petrifying Well Spring, which in turn is fed through an aquifer from a natural underground lake.  As the water travels through the aquifer it dissolves a very high concentration of minerals from the surrounding rocks, and it is this high mineral concentration in the spring water that turns things into stone if they are left immersed long enough.  In past centuries people would bring the sick and infirm to the Petrifying Well to drink the waters and bathe so that they would be healed, but these days you cannot drink the water as the high mineral content renders it not suitable. Another feature of Mother Shipton’s Caves is the Wishing Well, where apparently many of the wishes made have really come true.

So do you believe that some people can see into the future and that the prophecies of Mother Shipton were true? If so, maybe you should visit Mother Shipton’s Cave, make a wish at the Wishing Well and buy a teddy that was turned to stone in the Petrifying Well.

Mother Shipton image Wikimedia Commons Public Domain
Mother Shipton's Cave Chris Wikimedia Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

UK Invasive Species – War of the Grey and Black Squirrels

In the UK there are several very common and familiar animal, insect and plant species that are not actually native to our country.  They are species that have been introduced into our countryside in one way or another, and have often driven our native species from their habitats by out-competing them for food, passing on disease and taking over territory.  Invasive species can be very destructive to often fragile habitats, and can cost the economy millions of pounds a year. In fact, you may well have one of these alien animals in your garden right now, and you may have spent many happy hours watching their antics and admiring their aerial acrobatics in the trees.  This cute little invader is the grey squirrel, and although they seem so ubiquitous they have only been scampering around our gardens and woodlands for the last hundred years or so.

Our native squirrel species is the smaller red squirrel, and before the last quarter of the 19th century they numbered in the millions and ranged across the whole country. Red squirrels are easily recognisable by their striking red coats, bushy tails and tufts of red fur on their ears. Their preferred habitat is conifer forest, where they live off pine cones, seeds, shoots and fruit.  The red squirrel tends to be a solitary animal  except during the mating season, when they build large nests called dreys in the forks of trees producing a litter of between 2-3 kittens in the spring.  However, it is now estimated that there are as few as 120,000 red squirrels left in the wild, and the major cause of their decline was the introduction of grey squirrels into the UK.

The grey squirrel is a North American species, which arrived in the UK between 1876 and 1929 when they were introduced into many parks and private animal collections.  Inevitably some of the animals escaped or were released into the wild, where they thrived and bred successfully.  Because they were so much bigger, stronger and ate a wider variety of food than the native reds, they started to drive them out of their territory, so that now the red squirrel is confined to parts of Scotland, northern England, Wales and the Isle of Wight.  The grey squirrels also passed on disease to the reds, which they had no natural immunity to.

But although the grey squirrels have been the victorious conquerors of our gardens and parks for decades now, they do have a new challenger that is beginning to drive them out of their territory and ironically this new invasive species is a member of their own family.  So don’t go and get your eyes tested if the squirrel running down your fence looks black and not grey, as the black squirrel is slowly but surely increasing its numbers in some parts of Britain.

Like its grey cousin, the black squirrel also arrived from the US in the late 19th century, where they were kept as exotic pets in a private zoo in Bedfordshire.  Some of these animals escaped from captivity, and in 1912 the first wild black squirrel was spotted in the environs of Letchworth, Hertfordshire.  It is now estimated that there are more than 25,000 of them living in the UK, most of which are in the East Anglia region, and some scientists think that they could eventually become the dominant squirrel species in this country as there are more sightings of black squirrels being reported from other parts of the UK.

Grey and black squirrels are actually the same species, but a genetic mutation caused an excess of melanin to be produced in some squirrels that caused the black pigmentation of the fur.  It is thought that having black fur could help the squirrels to survive in colder climates, as it absorbs heat more readily.  Being so closely related, the grey and black squirrels can breed with each other, but when they do the black gene is dominant, which is another reason why they may eventually overtake the grey squirrels in numbers.  There has been a major research project undertaken on the spread of black squirrels by Anglia Ruskin University since 2004, where they have set up a website asking the public to report any black squirrel sightings they have made.  So a seemingly successful invasive species, can in its turn be overtaken by a more recently introduced species, so that in a few years time we could all be watching black squirrels in our parks, and the grey squirrels, just like the reds, might well have been pushed out and be only surviving in small colonies in the remoter, more inhospitable parts of the UK.

Black squirrel image Sujit kumar Wikimedia Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike 2.0 Generic