Story behind I Saw Three Ships Hymn

Written by on December 3, 2023

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,

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 written by wandering minstrels traveling through the country in the Middle Ages.

The meaning of the three ships is 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”.

Today’s most common lyrics are about Mary and Joseph traveling to Bethlehem. 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.”

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