I Saw Three Ships

I Saw Three Ships
Genre Christmas
Language English
Published 1833 (1833)

"I Saw Three Ships (Come Sailing In)" is a traditional and popular Christmas carol from England. The earliest printed version of "I Saw Three Ships" is from the 17th century, possibly Derbyshire, and was also published by William Sandys in 1833.[1][2]

The lyrics mention the ships sailing into Bethlehem, but the nearest body of water is the Dead Sea about 20 miles (32 km) away. The reference to three ships is thought to originate in the three ships that bore the purported relics of the Biblical magi to Cologne Cathedral in the 12th century.[2] Another possible reference is to Wenceslaus II, King of Bohemia, who bore a coat of arms "Azure three galleys argent".[3] Another suggestion is that the ships are actually the camels used by the Magi, as camels are frequently referred to as "ships of the desert".


An arrangement by Martin Shaw appears in the Oxford Book of Carols.[4] The Carols for Choirs series of carol books features arrangements of the carol by both Sir David Willcocks and John Rutter. Organist Simon Preston and former conductor of the Choir of King's College, Cambridge, Sir Philip Ledger, have also written arrangements that the choir have performed at the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols in recent years. This carol is also featured in the musical Caroline, or Change, but as a counterpoint. Adapted by Jon Schmidt on Jon Schmidt Christmas album. John Renbourn has arranged it (in a rather free adaptation) for guitar. The song appears on Nat King Cole's 1960 album The Magic of Christmas (l/k/a "The Christmas Song"), arranged by Ralph Carmichael.

Other recordings

Chris Squires recorded this song on his Swiss Choir album. This was his second and last solo album and he chose to record Christmas songs. Steve Hackett, of Genesis fame, played guitar on the album also.

Other versions

  • "I saw three ships come sailing by on New Year's Day" is a 19th-century version, which mentions three pretty girls in the ship entertaining at a wedding held on New Year's Day.[8]

See also


  1. Cecil James Sharp (2008) The Morris Book: With a Description of Dances as Performed by the Morris Men
  2. 1 2 Website describing the carol and giving secondary references
  3. Camden Roll, dated c.1280, entry 11 and Heralds' Roll, dated c.1280 entry 18.
  4. The Oxford Book of Carols (1928) p.36.
  5. Connolly, Dave. "Jon Anderson: Three Ships: AllMusic Review". AllMusic. Retrieved 19 November 2016.
  6. "The Christmas Album". Amazon.com. 2000. Retrieved 2016-12-24.
  7. Katrina Rees, "ALBUM REVIEW: Lindsey Stirling – ‘Warmer In The Winter’,", Celeb Mix, October 19, 2017
  8. Crane, Walter (1877). The Baby's Opera: A Book of Old Rhymes with New Dresses. Frederick Warne & Co. pp. 18–19. Retrieved 7 October 2010.
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