Behind the Hymn: I Saw Three Ships


I Saw Three Ships {Come Sailing In} is a traditional and popular Christmas carol from England.

The hymn was published in 1833 by William Sandys in his book, Christmastide: Its History,

The Magi followed the star

Festivities And Carols.   However, it is believed that earlier versions may have been around from the 17th Century.

Other sources believe the hymn originated from an English folk song that was written by wandering minstrels traveling through the country in the Middle Ages.

The meaning of the three ships are unknown but there are several theories.

  1. Ships that may have brought the Biblical magi relics to the Colognie Cathedral in Germany in the 12th Century {this is the most commonly held belief}
  2. the camels the Magi used were often referred to as “ships of the desert”
  3. The coat of arms of Wenceslaus II, King of Bohemia, who bore a coat of arms “Azure three galleys argent”.

The most common lyrics sung today are about Mary and Joseph traveling to Bethlehem.

The Wise Men brought three gifts which leads many to think there were only three wise men

John Camden Hotten noted in his 1905 Christmas Carols, Ancient and Modern that the carol “has always been a great favorite with the illiterate, and from its quaintness will be found not displeasing to the more refined.”

Where do you think the song originated?






I Saw Three Ships originated from an English carol #songstory Share on X




One comment

  • Some fifty years ago the Japanese print artist created a work titled “The Return of the Wise Men.” He bases his thinking on the verse of scripture which said that the Wise Men, having been warned in a dream, did not return the visit King Herod but instead returned to their own country by another way. Another way? They came by camels so they returned by another way…ships. Interesting thought. And perhaps if they came by ships they returned by camels.

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