You know how the rhyme goes:
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. “Twee tweedle dee, tweedle dee,” went the fiddlers. O there’s none so rare, as can compare With King Cole and his fiddlers three.
But no matter how fine his fiddlers’ fiddles might have been, and no matter how merry the king himself may have been, one question remains: Who on earth was Old King Cole?
One popular theory is that the “Old King” in question wasn’t actually a king at all, but “Old Thomas Cole,” a wealthy merchant said to have lived and worked in Reading, 40 miles outside London, sometime during the reign of King Henry I in the early 1100s. Better known simply as “Thomas of Reading,” Cole’s life story was recorded in the late 16th century by an English balladeer and novelist named Thomas Daloney, who explained that Cole was a clothier, or cloth merchant. While traveling from his home in Reading to meetings with buyers and clients in London, Cole would habitually stop off at a pub en route called The Ostrich—the landlord and landlady of which were serial murderers. They had rigged a trapdoor in one of their rooms that would drop their wealthiest guests through the floor, and into an enormous vat of boiling water in the kitchens below. According to Deloney’s tale, Cole stayed in The Ostrich’s rigged bedroom a total of five times, but each time some unexpected circumstance—an argument among card players downstairs, a fire in a nearby town, the arrival of the mail from London—intervened, and prevented him from being killed. In the end, Cole dies peacefully in his bed at The Ostrich, the landlords’ plot is uncovered, the couple are hanged, and King Henry himself appears and demands the pub be burned to the ground.
Whether Thomas Cole and his murderous innkeepers ever existed is anyone’s guess, but given that Cole himself is not a king (not to mention that his story is far from a merry one), it seems just as unlikely that he is the origin of our eponymous “merry old soul.” Instead, we might have to travel even further back in time to find the answer.
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Coel Hen, or “Coel the Old,” was a Welsh-born king of northern England sometime toward the end of the Roman rule of Great Britain, in the 4th to 5th century. According to some accounts, he was the last person in Roman Britain to hold the position of , or “Duke of Britain,” a military title given to the leader of the Roman army in the north of Britain. When the Romans left, Coel remained in control in the north, and from his base at Eboracum (modern-day York) ruled over a vast swathe of the country from the Welsh to the Scottish borders.
According to legend, Coel’s reign ended in the early 400s after he declared war on an alliance of Pictish and Scots-Irish troops threatening to overthrow the British-held kingdom of Strathclyde and, from there, launch an invasion of his kingdom. Coel’s campaign against them initially succeeded, and he established a permanent camp in the region (now Coylton in South Ayrshire) to quell any further unrest. But the Scots and Picts launched one final surprise attack on Coel’s garrison, scattering him and his men into the surrounding countryside, and in the commotion Coel stumbled into an area of marshland and drowned. After his death, reportedly at the age of 70, his kingdom was divided between his two sons.
So Coel was certainly a king, and he was certainly old for his time—but was he “merry”?
Well, other accounts claim that Coel had a music-loving daughter, Helena, and it was her love of music that inspired the legend that her father “called for his fiddlers three.” But this theory apparently confuses Coel Hen with a legendary Celtic ruler and Roman cavalry officer named Coel Godhebog, or “Coel the Magnificent.” If not entirely fictitious, the details of Coel Godhebog’s life are even sketchier than those of Coel Hen’s, although he is popularly said to have been based in Colchester in Essex, and (according to local folklore, at least) to have given his name to the town. (At various times, both Coels were said to have had a daughter named Helena who went on to marry Constantius Chlorus and give birth to Constantine the Great. But this is certainly myth: Helena is believed to have been born in Asia Minor, not Britain.)
So it could be that "Old King Cole" isn’t in fact based on just one “old Coel,” but rather two—the legend of the Celtic Coel Hen might have initially inspired the story, before it became muddled with the legend of Colchester’s merry Coel Godhebog at a later date.
The problem with both of these theories, however, is that the rhyme "Old King Cole" has not be found in print any earlier than 1709, whereas both Coel Hen and Coel Godhebog died in the 4th-5th centuries. Were their stories really well known enough to have inspired a rhyme more than 1300 years later? It’s debatable—and it could be that there’s another Old King Cole somewhere in the history books waiting to be discovered.