By Dr Oliver Tearle
‘Old King Cole’ is familiar to us from the famous children’s rhyme, but just who was he? Although the song of ‘Old King Cole’ is well-known, the man named Old King Cole, with his fiddlers three, remains shrouded in mystery. Before we examine this issue a little more closely, here’s a reminder of the words to the song.
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 find 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.
As Iona and Peter Opie remark in The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes (Oxford Dictionary of Nusery Rhymes), the question of which merry monarch is being referred to in ‘Old King Cole’ was the subject of speculation as early as the reign of Queen Anne (1702-14). The Opies mention a William King, who, in his Useful Transactions in Philosophy (1708-9), mentions the ‘Prince that Built Colchester’ (Cole-chester, then!), and a clothier of Reading whose name was Cole-brook, with King favouring the Essex candidate. In reality, there was no prince named Cole who founded Colchester (the name is probably related to the word for ‘colony’), so perhaps the Reading man is more likely. A Coel Hen or Coel the Old is associated with Welsh myth and legend, and is another candidate.
The Reading clothier named Cole-brook became proverbial in the seventeenth century after he appeared in a bestselling book, The pleasant Historie of Thomas of Reading; or, The Sixe worthie Yeomen of the West, in around 1598. This merchant was a ‘king’ in all but name: he amassed vast wealth, had some 140 servants in his big house, and had over 300 people working for him. It may be that Cole-brook the cloth-merchant became promoted in song to ‘Old King Cole’.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Image: via Wikimedia Commons.