I Saw Three Ships

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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 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]

A variant of the song adds a further first verse: "As I Sat on a Sunny Bank". The subsequent verses are similar in both versions.

I saw three ships come sailing in
   On Christmas day, on Christmas day
I saw three ships come sailing in
   On Christmas day in the morning

And what was in those ships all three?

Our Saviour Christ and his lady.

Wither sailed those ships all three?

O they sailed into Bethlehem.

And all the bells on earth shall ring.

And angels in all heaven shall sing.

And all the souls on earth shall sing.

Then let us all rejoice amain!

External links


  1. Cecil James Sharp (2008) The Morris Book: With a Description of Dances as Performed by the Morris Men
  2. 2.0 2.1 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. Mainly Norfolk - I Saw Three Ships