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Old King Cole

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.


Iona and Peter Opie consider the 'Old King Cole' of nursery school poem reputation was actually 'Old Cole' (alias Thomas Cole-brook), a hypothetical 12th century Reading fabric merchant whose tale was recounted by Thomas Deloney in his The Enjoyable History of Thomas of Reading (circa 1598). A number of analysts believe it improbable that the nursery school rhyme was printed earlier than 1585, when Sir Walter Raleigh introduced tobacco into England. Others think the "pipe" referred to may not have been a smoking pipe, but quite a melodic instrument, or a gauge of wine. The hypothesis that "pipe" refers to a melodic device (almost certainly some form of woodwind device) is further suggested by the last words of the song "there's none so rare, As can contrast With King Cole and his fiddlers three", which appear to propose that King Cole and his fiddlers played composition jointly as a group. The word "pipe" is frequently used as an "casual word for a flute or recorder". The statement ceol really means melody in Gaelic, and this may be the source of the name in the rhyme.

A well-liked British fable tells us that there is said to have been a King Cole living in the township of Colchester in Essex in the third century AD. In about 1129, Henry of Huntingdon claimed that Cole was the father of St Helena and consequently grandfather of the Roman Emperor, Constantine the Great. 'Colchester' can be interpreted as meaning 'Cole's castle', though it is usually thought to derive from the River Coln, itself named after the Roman colonia established there. The township as well contains an old Roman excavation called 'King Cole's Kitchen'. In his mainly imaginary Historia Regum Britanniae, Geoffrey of Monmouth lists a Ruler Cole as a king of the Britons subsequent the sovereignty of King Asclepiodotus. Geoffrey expands Cole's tale, stating that, upset with Asclepiodotus's conduct of Diocletian's massacres, he began a revolt in the duchy of Caercolun (Colchester), of which he was duke. He met Asclepiodotus in combat and killed him, therefore winning the kingship of Britain upon himself. Rome, it seems that, was delighted that Britain had a new ruler and sent a senator, Constantius Chlorus, to talk with Cole. Frightened of the Romans, Cole met Constantius and decided to pay honor and submit to Roman laws as long as he was permitted to keep the kingship of Britain. Constantius approved to these conditions but, one month later, Cole died. Constantius married Cole's daughter, St Helena, and crowned himself as Coel's heir. Helen later gave birth to a son who became the Emperor, Constantine the Great. Local client kings merely survived for a few years after the Roman attack, but leading tribal families may still have held positions of authority at this later era. This nature is, however, most probable to be a reminiscence of the grand pre-Roman King Cunobelinus of the Catuvellauni tribe – Shakespeare's Cymbeline – who made Colchester his capital.

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