Old King Cole
Another favourite of mine which went like this, “Old King Cole was a merry old soul/ And a merry old soul was he;/ He called for his pipe, and he called for his bowl/ And he called for his fiddlers three./ Every fiddler he had a fiddle,/ And a very fine fiddle had he; / Oh there’s none so rare, as can compare/ With King Cole and his fiddlers three”.
The rhyme was first recorded by William King in 1709/9 in his Useful Transactions in Philosophy but who was this jolly old King?
Well, inevitably, there is no definitive answer but there is at least some circumstantial evidence to suggest that there were might have been a Celtic king bearing the name of or a derivative of Cole. Our old friend Geoffrey of Monmouth in his early twelfth century Gesta Regum Anglorum refers to a King Cole as king of the Britons.
Coel, spelt and pronounced as such rather than as coal, is a Celtic name and a moniker which a number of kings and persons of noble birth bore. The name of the Essex town of Colchester, reputedly the oldest town in England, is an Anglicisation of Cole’s Castle.
If there was a real King Cole personified by the rhyme, there are three possible contenders. Firstly, there is Coel Godhebog who was born around 220 CE and who was Lord of Colchester, appointed by the Romans to run the area.
If the reference to Coel is to an historical or quasi-historical figure, it is more likely, however, to have been Coel Hen who lived between around 350 and 420 CE. Because of his longevity, he was also known as Coel the Old so at least we can claim that he was Old Cole. As the Roman grip on the provincial outpost weakened Coel converted the area under his control into a kingdom, allegedly ruling the whole of the north of England south of Hadrian’s Wall.
An alternative contender is St Ceneu ap Coel who, born around 382 CE, was the son of Coel Hen. He was sainted because he chose to stick with the Christian faith despite the predations of the pagan invaders. According to Geoffrey of Monmouth this Coel attended the coronation of King Arthur.
The Tudors, ever anxious to legitimise their usurpation of the English throne, claimed direct descent from Coel Hen.
Those unimpressed by the claims of a Romano-British king suggested that our Cole was actually a 12th century cloth merchant, Thomas Colebrook, who featured in Thomas Deloney’s The Pleasant History of Thomas of Reading, published in 1598 and who subsequently appeared as a character in a number of plays in the following century.
But I am not persuaded by any of these attempts at association and think there is a simpler explanation. A pipe was a musical instrument similar to a flute or a recorder and our friend Cole played ensemble with a trio of violinists. Ceol is Gaelic for music and you can see how this could have been Anglicised at least in written form to Cole. King may just denote that the piper was the leader of the group and the adjective may reference his vintage. So what we may have in this rhyme is a portrayal of a group of musicians making merry. There is no need to look any further.