> Maddy Prior > Songs > I Saw Three Ships

I Saw Three Ships / As I Sat on a Sunny Bank

[ Roud 700 ; Ballad Index OBB104 ; VWML LEB/9/392/6 ; Bodleian Roud 700 ; Wiltshire Roud 700 ; trad.]

Charlie Bate and others sang I Saw Three Ships Come Sailing In in 1957 in the live Christmas Day broadcast on BBC Radio, Sing Christmas and the Turn of the Year.

John Thomas of Camborne, Cornwall sang As I Sat on a Sunny Bank in a recording made by Peter Kennedy in the 1950s. It was included on the anthology Songs of Ceremony (The Folk Songs of Britain Volume 9; Caedmon 1961; Topic 1970).

Maggie Goodall and Sue Harris sang I Saw Three Ships in 1986 on the anthology Yuletracks.

Maddy Prior and the Carnival Band sang I Saw Three Ships on their 1991 CD Carols and Capers, 1992 maxi single I Saw Three Ships, 1998 CD Carols at Christmas, and 2005 DVD An Evening of Carols and Capers.

Incantation sang I Saw Three Ships Come Sailing By on their 1995 album Songs for the Season.

Nowell Sing We Clear sang I Saw Three Ships in 1995 on their CD Hail Smiling Morn. They commented in their liner notes:

We loved this ‘Crawn’ version of the widespread carol I Saw Three Ships on first sight. It was collected in 1895 from a Humber estuary boatman on the east coast of England, and ultimately published by Baring-Gould in his Garland of Country Songs in the same year. It finally makes sense out of the puzzle of why three ships appear in the Christmas narrative at all. Legend has it that the skulls (‘crawns’ = ‘craniums’ = ‘crowns’?) of the ‘Kings’ or ‘Wise Men’ were taken and lodged in the cathedral at Cologne.

Kerfuffle sang Three Ships, “an old English carol dating back to at least the 17th century”, in 2009 on their Midwinter album Lighten the Dark.

Paul and Liz Davenport sang Three Ships on their 2014 CD Wait for No Man. They noted:

This song was collected from a Humber keelman around 1897. The collector couldn't cope with the Hull accent and so it became known as the ‘Crawn’ variant of this well-known carol. The song describes three ships carrying the skulls of the Three Kings to their resting place in Cologne Cathedral. The local legend is that these ships sheltered from a storm in the Humber, and perhaps this is why the city of Kingston upon Hull has three crowns as its coat of arms?

Coope Boyes & Simpson sang As I Sat on a Sunny Bank in 1998 on their No Masters CD A Garland of Carols and again in 2008 on On Angel Wings. They commented:

One of the most widespread and varied of traditional carols, best known in the form I Saw Three Ships. The Ships are a recurring feature in all the texts, but versions from different parts of the country include verses which ask for a present of Christmas cheer, or give Saint Michael the job of steering the ship while Saint John sits on the prow—there is even a form collected in 1895 from a Humber boatman which makes the Ships the transport for holy relics, taking the skulls of the Three Kings to Cologne Cathedral. It seems to have been particularly popular with children and was also a favourite of Christmas Garland printers, who regularly included it on their seasonal sheets of carol texts.

This is one of several carols collected from Mrs Wilson of King's Langley by the folklorist Lucy Broadwood and published in English County Songs in 1892.

Kate Rusby sang Sunny Bank on her 2015 CD The Frost Is All Over.

Andy Turner sang As I Sat on a Sunny Bank as the December 21, 2017 entry of his project A Folk Song a Week.

Lyrics

Maddy Prior sings I Saw Three Ships Coope Boyes & Simpson sing As I Sat on a Sunny Bank

As I sat on a sunny bank,
    A sunny bank, a sunny bank
As I sat on a sunny bank
    On Christmas day in the morning

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

I saw three ships come sailing in.

And what was in those ships all three?

I askèd them what they had in.

Our Saviour Christ and his lady.

They said they had the Saviour in.

Wither sailed those ships all three?

I askèd them where they found Him.

O they sailed into Bethlehem.

They said they found Him in Bethlehem.

And all the bells on earth shall ring.

Now all the bells on earth shall ring.

And angels in all Heaven shall sing.

And all the angels in Heaven shall sing.

And all the souls on earth shall sing.

Then let us all rejoice amain!

Nowell Sing We Clear sing I Saw Three Ships

I saw three ships come sailing by,
I saw three ships come sailing by,
   By, by, by,
I saw three ships come sailing by.

I asked them what they'd got on board.

They said that they had got three crawns.

I asked them where they was taking them to.

They said they was going to Köln upon Rhine.

I asked them where they was bringing them from.

They said they was coming from Bethlehem.

I saw three ships come sailing by.