King Cole or Coel is a figure, or multiple figures with similar names, prominent in British literature and legend since the Middle Ages. Early Welsh tradition knew of a Coel Hen (Coel the Old), a leader in Roman or Sub-Roman Britain and the progenitor of several kingly lines in the Hen Ogledd ("the Old North"), the Brittonic-speaking part of northern England and southern Scotland. Later medieval legend told of a Coel, apparently derived from Coel Hen, who was the father of Saint Helena and the grandfather of Roman Emperor Constantine the Great. Other similarly named characters may be confused or conflated with the Welsh Coel. The traditional "King Coel" may be the historical basis for the popular nursery rhyme "Old King Cole".
Context and evidence
Coel Hen appears in the Harleian genealogies and the later pedigrees known as the Bonedd Gwŷr y Gogledd (The Descent of the Men of the North) at the head of several post-Roman royal families of the Hen Ogledd. His line, collectively called the Coeling, included such noted figures as Urien, king of Rheged; Gwallog, perhaps king of Elmet; the brothers Gwrgi and Peredur; and Clydno Eiddin, king of Eidyn or Edinburgh. He was also considered to be the father-in-law of Cunedda, founder of Gwynedd in North Wales, by his daughter Gwawl. The genealogies give him the epithet Godebog, meaning "Protector" or "Shelterer". The poem Y Gododdin mentions some enmity between the "Sons of Godebog" and the heroes who fought for the Gododdin at the Battle of Catraeth.
As an ancestor figure, Coel Hen compares to Dyfnwal Hen, who is likewise attributed with founding kingly lines in the Hen Ogledd. According to Welsh tradition the region of Kyle was named for Coel, and a mound at Coylton in Ayrshire was regarded as his tomb. Projections back from dated individuals suggest that Coel Hen lived around AD 350–420, during the time of the Roman departure from Britain. In his widely criticized book The Age of Arthur, historian John Morris suggested that Coel may have been the last of the Roman Duces Brittanniarum (Dukes of the Britons) who commanded the Roman army in northern Britain. According to Morris he may have taken over the northern capital at Eburacum (York) to rule over what had been the northern province of Roman Britain. Upon Coel Hen's death, his lands would have been split between his sons, Garmonion and Cunedda II, and later his grandsons, Dunwal Moelmut, Cunedda III, and Gwrwst Ledlwn, thus creating the many old northern kingdoms of Britain.
In his Historia Anglorum, Henry of Huntingdon mentions that a King Coel of Colchester was the father of Saint Helena and therefore the grandfather of Constantine the Great. The same claim appears in Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae, in a passage using some of the same words. Henry appears to have written this part of the Historia Anglorum before he knew about Geoffrey's work, leading J. S. P. Tatlock to conclude that Geoffrey borrowed the passage from Henry, rather than the other way around. The source of the claim is unknown, but it may have come from a lost hagiography of Helena.
Geoffrey's largely legendary Historia Regum Britanniae expands upon Henry's brief mention, listing Coel as a King of the Britons following the reign of King Asclepiodotus. In the Historia, Coel grows upset with Asclepiodotus's handling of the Diocletianic Persecution and begins a rebellion in his duchy of Caer Colun (thought to be Colchester in southeastern England). He meets Asclepiodotus in battle and kills him, thus taking the kingship of Britain upon himself. Rome, apparently, is pleased that Britain had a new king and sends a senator, Constantius Chlorus, to negotiate with Coel. Afraid of the Romans, Coel meets Constantius and agrees to pay tribute and submit to Roman laws as long as he is allowed to retain the kingship. Constantius agrees to these terms, but Coel dies one month later. Constantius marries Coel's daughter, Helena, and crowns himself as Coel's successor. Helena subsequently gives birth to a son who becomes the Emperor Constantine the Great, giving a British pedigree to the Roman imperial line.
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- MacQuarrie, Alan (1993). "The Kings of Strathclyde : c.400 - 1018". In Grant, A.; Stringer, K. Medieval Scotland : Crown, Lordship and Community : essays presented to G.W.S.Barrow. Edinburgh University Press. pp. 1–19. ISBN 9780748611102.
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