ONE of the cheeriest carols is I Saw Three Ships. It was first published in 1833 but had been around for centuries before that. Presumably it is because it is so old that no one really knows what the words mean. For a start, this verse is odd:
O they sailed into Bethlehem,
On Christmas Day, on Christmas Day;
They sailed into Bethlehem,
On Christmas Day in the morning.
Bethlehem is landlocked, the nearest navigable water being more than 30 miles away.
There are all sorts of ideas about the origin of the carol.
In Cornwall, there is a tradition that St Joseph of Arimathea, who took responsibility for the body of Christ after the Crucifixion, was a tin trader who made several voyages to Britain. According to the legend on one occasion he brought with him Jesus and his mother as passengers, and landed them at St Michael’s Mount.
Another oral tradition says that after the Crucifixion Joseph of Arimathea and the three Marys (Jesus’s mother, Mary Magdalene, and the sister of Martha) sailed to the south of France with the chalice that caught the blood of Christ on the cross (the Holy Grail) and travelled throughout Europe evangelising. In this tradition the three ships in question are the three Marys.
The most likely explanation is thought to involve the Magi, the three distinguished foreigners who visited the newborn Jesus bringing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. The New Testament does not give their names but in the Western Christian church they are commonly known as Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar.
The Bible does not record what happened to them when they returned to their own countries but tradition has it that they were so moved by their encounter with Jesus that they became Christians. According to the story they were martyred for their faith, and their bodies were first venerated at Constantinople, then they were transferred to Milan in 344. Eight centuries later, in 1164, the relics were taken to Cologne, where three golden crowns said to have been made for the Magi were kept. (The crowns still figure in the city’s coat of arms.) Construction of the present Cologne Cathedral began in 1248 to house the relics. The cathedral took 632 years to complete and is now the largest Gothic church in northern Europe. The relics are kept in a large gilded and decorated triple sarcophagus behind the high altar. On July 20, 1864, the shrine was opened, and numerous bones were found which could be assembled into three nearly complete male skeletons. The bones were wrapped in white silk and returned to the shrine.
The carol is thought to refer to the relics being carried on three ships from Italy to Germany in the 12th century, though there are many variations of the words. You can find a comprehensive collection here. It is not known who composed the melody or when. Here the choir of King’s College, Cambridge, sing an arrangement by Philip Ledger in a newly released video.