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.