The Origins of ‘Old King Coal’

Those nursery rhymes we learned at our mother’s knee often have their origins in real historical characters or events, often in early history, and immortalised in song. This is the case with ‘Old King Coal’.

The song is based on the folk memory of a celebrated regional king of Britain who ruled towards the end of the Roman occupation of Britain, and may have held an imperial office – Dux Brittonum – guardian of the territory either side of Hadrian’s Wall – keeping the peace on behalf of the Roman Empire, based at York.
Old King Coal is though to be Coel Hen (‘Hen’ meaning ‘Old’ in the Brythonic tongue spoken by the Britons in the pre-Anglo-Saxon era). King Coel is thought to have reigned from around 380-410.

He imposed his power over a large area of the north, from a line joining Chester and the Wash and up into what is today southern Scotland. He is mentioned in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s ‘History of the Kings of Britain’ (1136). According to Geoffrey, Coel, annoyed by King Asclepiodotus’s handling of the Diocletianic Persecution of Christians, started a rebellion in Caer Colun (most likely Colchester). He clashed with Asclepiodotus in battle and killing him, assumed his title of high-king of Britain.
According to a Welsh Chronicle, Coel Hen was married to Ystradwal, the daughter of Cadfan, and was the ancestor of several lines of kings in the Hen Ogledd or ‘Old North’, the Brythonic Celtic speaking part of northern England and southern Scotland. His descendants, known as the Coeling, included Urien of Rheged, a late sixth century warrior king of North Rheged, of whom the Welsh Triads list as one of the ‘Three Great Battle-leaders of Britain’. Other descendants of Coel include Gwallog, possibly king of Elmet; the brothers Gwrgi and Peredur; and Clydno Eiddin, king of Eidyn or Edinburgh. He was also thought to be the father-in-law of Cunedda, founder of the kingdom of Gwynedd in North Wales, by his daughter Gwawl. The genealogies bestow the epithet Godebog, on Coel meaning the ‘Protector’.

So, before warming his feet by a roaring fire, puffing on a pipe and being entertained by fiddlers, we can imagine the elderly king riding beside Hadrian’s Wall, white hair flowing behind, keeping the peace at the head of his armed riders. Perhaps he only had a ‘merry ‘ demeanour once the hard work of enforcing Roman law was done.

Old King Coal book cover

Old King Cole (nursery rhyme)

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!

And every fiddler, he had a fine fiddle,
And a very fine fiddle had he.
“Twee tweedle dee, tweedle dee, went the fiddlers.

Oh, there’s none so rare
As can compare
With King Cole and his fiddlers three.

Is Science Killing our Legends?

Reflections on Legends by Tim Walker

I recently appeared via Skype (taking the place of Mary Anne Yarde who was unable to take part) on a Sky UK Television studio panel discussion (YouTube link below). The programme was appropriately called ‘Round Table’, and this edition was concerned with discussing the relevance of legends in contemporary times, given that scientists are now claiming to have disproved the existence of the Loch Ness Monster. Has science killed Nessie? …And, by extension, can it kill off our favourite legends?

One of the points I was keen to make was that the dictionary definition of ‘legend’ – a traditional story or myth; traditional literature; famous person or event; stories about such a person or event; inscriptions – understates the concept. A legend is a story whose origins are lost in the hazy mists of time, and therefore cannot be conclusively proved or disproved. They endure because their themes are re-interpreted by each age through re-tellings that reflect the values, fears and hopes of that age, and their appeal is partly held by the element of the unknown that add an air of mystery.

English Heritage Magazine Cover_LegendsIn reading about the origins of the King Arthur story, I became fascinated by the blurred boundary between historical fact and storytelling. The oral tradition of remembering great heroes and their deeds, who often protected a fearful community from an external threat, delivered through bardic praise poems, songs and dramatic performance, often has a root in factual events and real people. But by their nature, the feats of the hero are exaggerated and he is ‘bigged-up’ to make for a more engaging story. The bard, after all, was singing for his supper. The feats of an heroic warrior is a recurring theme in many of our favourite legends including Beowulf – the earliest epic poem in the English language; George and the Dragon and Robin Hood.

George and the Dragon is a meshing together of two stories – that of an early Christian martyr and a British folk tale about a brave warrior called Gaarge who is hired by a village to save it from ‘a giant worm’. The story of Arthur was cobbled together by Geoffrey of Monmouth in the twelfth century from mentions of a heroic resistance leader in the fifth and sixth centuries in earlier Welsh chronicles and folk tales, although it is accepted by historians that he piled onto Arthur’s shoulders the deeds of other unnamed heroic figures in a political gambit to create a super-warrior who opposed the Saxons, and thus please his Norman readership.

However, there are echoes of a real Arthur in the writings of a monk called Nennius, accredited with writing The History of the British People in the ninth century, who talks of the twelve battles of Arthur, and describes Arthur as leading the combined armies of the Kings of the Britons against Saxon invaders, naming his opponent as Octha, the son of Hengist (deemed to be a real historical figures) as the King of Kent. Although Arthur, Britain’s first superhero, has a toe-hold in history, the legendary figure was deliberately created by Geoffrey to flatter his Norman lord and sponsor, goading the defeated Saxons with the tale of a noble king who lead the Britons in resistance to the coming of the Anglo-Saxons. In contrast, the dispossessed Saxons built up their own legendary folk hero in Robin Hood, who protected the common people from the tyranny of a Norman lord. There are grains of truth in the half-remembered stories that underpin these legends, kept alive by reflecting the values, fears and hopes of each generation, for whom the stories are slightly customised.

Legends persist because they are part of the fabric of our cultural identity, our sense of who we are. Witness a basic, sixth century warlord Arthur, seized upon by later generations who embellished him with Middle Ages chivalric and Christian virtue, presenting him as a just and devout ruler who kept the peace and protected the people from external (often pagan) threats. These are similar attributes now given to superheroes that have captured the public imagination in our contemporary popular culture. They are recurring themes in human society – the need for justice, order, peace and protection. Arthur, Beowulf, Saint George and Robin Hood provide these reassurances, and that is why they are enduring legends in British culture.

I’ve no doubt that Nessie will survive the glare of science and endure in popular memory and belief, despite scientists declaring that the only non-fish DNA found in the loch is that of eels. So, why not a giant eel? After all, the pre-runner of dragons in early folk lore are ‘giant worms’.

Tim Walker

A Light New Banner x 4 books

Tim Walker’s A Light in the Dark Ages book series starts with…
Abandoned
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Ambrosius: Last of the Romans
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Uther’s Destiny
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Arthur Dux Bellorum
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YouTube Link to TV Show

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