I Saw Three Ships

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"I Saw Three Ships (Come Sailing In)" is a traditional and popular Christmas carol from England. A variant of its parent tune "Greensleeves", 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 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 thought was the three kings that came to baby Jesus.


An arrangement by Martin Shaw appears in The Oxford Book of Carols.[4] The Carols for Choirs series of carol books features an arrangement of the carol by Sir David Willcocks. 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 LP "The Magic Of Christmas" (l/k/a "The Christmas Song"), arranged by Ralph Carmichael. Progressive rock singer Jon Anderson released a version as the title track of his album 3 Ships in 1985. Sufjan Stevens recorded a version of the song in 4/4 time for his album Hark!: Songs for Christmas, Vol. II. [5]

Other versions[edit]

  • "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.[6]

In popular culture[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Cecil James Sharp (2008) The Morris Book: With a Description of Dances as Performed by the Morris Men
  2. ^ a b 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. ^ http://xmas.asthmatickitty.com
  6. ^ 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. 

External links[edit]