Old King Cole

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"Old King Cole"
Old King Cole 2 - WW Denslow - Project Gutenberg etext 18546.jpg
Illustration by William Wallace Denslow
Nursery rhyme

"Old King Cole" is a British nursery rhyme first attested in 1708. Though there is much speculation about the identity of King Cole, it is unlikely that he can be identified reliably as any historical figure. It has a Roud Folk Song Index number of 1164. The poem describes a merry king who called for his pipe, bowl, and musicians, with the details varying among versions. The "bowl" is a drinking vessel,[1] while the "pipe" is a musical instrument. It is not likely referring to a pipe for smoking tobacco which was not introduced to Europe until after the first voyage of Christopher Columbus in 1492. Although the earliest known origins of the nursery rhyme date to the early 18th century, credible origins of an "Old King Cole" all predate the European use of the smoking pipe by hundreds of years. Tobacco was not widely smoked in Europe until the mid to late 1590s, quickly gaining popularity in Europe as a wonder medicine plant.[2]. It is more likely and meaningful that all three of Old King Cole's requests were for Musical Instruments as some sources explain that he used music rather than swords to gain popularity.[3]


The most common modern version of the rhyme is:

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.[4]

The song is first attested in William King in his Useful Transactions in Philosophy in 1708–9.[4]

King's version has the following lyrics:

Good King Cole,
And he call'd for his Bowle,
And he call'd for Fidler's three;
And there was Fiddle, Fiddle,
And twice Fiddle, Fiddle,
For 'twas my Lady's Birth-day,
Therefore we keep Holy-day
And come to be merry.[4]

Identity of King Cole[edit]

There is much speculation about the identity of King Cole, but it is unlikely that he can be identified reliably given the centuries between the attestation of the rhyme and the putative identities; none of the extant theories is well supported.[4]

William King mentions two possibilities: the "Prince that Built Colchester" and a 12th-century cloth merchant from Reading named Cole-brook. Sir Walter Scott thought that "Auld King Coul" was Cumhall, the father of the giant Fyn M'Coule (Finn McCool). Other modern sources[5] suggest (without much justification) that he was Richard Cole (1568–1614) of Bucks in the parish of Woolfardisworthy on the north coast of Devon, whose monument and effigy survive in All Hallows Church, Woolfardisworthy.

Coel Hen theory[edit]

It is often noted that the name of the legendary Welsh king Coel Hen can be translated 'Old Cole' or 'Old King Cole'.[6][7] This sometimes leads to speculation that he, or some other Coel in Roman Britain, is the model for Old King Cole of the nursery rhyme.[8] However, there is no documentation of a connection between the fourth-century figures and the eighteenth-century nursery rhyme. There is also a dubious connection of Old King Cole to Cornwall and King Arthur found at Tintagel Castle that there was a Cornish King or Lord Coel.[citation needed]

Further speculation connects Old King Cole and thus Coel Hen to Colchester, but in fact Colchester was not named for Coel Hen.[9] Connecting with the musical theme of the nursery rhyme, according to a much later source, Coel Hen supposedly had a daughter who was skilled in music, according to Geoffrey of Monmouth, writing in the 12th century.[4]

Cole-brook theory[edit]

In the 19th century William Chappell, an expert on popular music, suggested the possibility that the "Old King Cole" was really "Old Cole", alias Thomas Cole-brook, a supposed 12th-century Reading cloth merchant whose story was recounted by Thomas Deloney in his Pleasant History of Thomas of Reading (c. 1598), and who was well known as a character in plays of the early 17th century. The name "Old Cole" had some special meaning in Elizabethan theatre, but it is unclear what it was.[4]

Modern usage[edit]

King Cole is often referenced in popular culture.

In literature[edit]

One of the world's smallest books is about Old King Cole. It measures 1mm x 1mm and was printed in Paisley, Scotland, in 1985. There are only 85 known copies.[10]

In music[edit]

In 1927, Moshe Nadir (1885–1943) published a Yiddish adaptation of "Old King Cole", "Der Rebbe Elimelech". It has since become a popular Yiddish folksong.

The progressive rock band Genesis included a version of the traditional rhyme on their song "The Musical Box", from their 1971 album Nursery Cryme.

Queen paraphrased the rhyme in their song "Great King Rat" on their 1973 self-titled album:

Great King Rat was a dirty old man
And a dirty old man was he
Now what did I tell you
Would you like to see?

The rhyme has appeared in children's television. For example, it was sung on the television show Barney & Friends, but with the last few lyrics simplified (which were also adjusted for the drummer and trumpeter verses):

Dance with the fiddlers,
Dance with the fiddlers
Dance with the fiddlers three.

It has also been used repeatedly in Sesame Street, using the fiddlers as a way to illustrate principles of basic addition (with Ernie taking the role of Old King Cole), and again with William Wegman's dogs on the show (with Chundo as Old King Cole).

Pop singer Nat "King" Cole (actual surname Coles) said his nickname was inspired by "Old King Cole". The "King" in Nat Cole's name was usually used in quotation marks during his lifetime, but today it is often seen as though it were part of his name. Cole Alexander of Atlanta punk band Black Lips has also adopted the name, and performs solo as Old King Cole Younger, a name also partially derived from Confederate guerilla and later Old West outlaw Cole Younger.

The rock band The Mechanisms feature the character of King Cole prominently in their first album, “Once Upon a Time(In Space)”.

As a marching cadence[edit]

The United States military has used versions[11] of the traditional rhyme in the form of marching cadences, since at least the 1920s up to the present. A modern example begins:

Old King Cole was a merry old soul
and a merry ol' soul was he, uh huh.
He called for his pipe, and he called for his bowl
and he called for his privates three, uh huh.
Beer! Beer! Beer! cried the private.
Brave men are we
There's none so fair as they can compare
to the airborne infantry, uh huh.

The cadence includes verses for ranks from private to general, in the form of a cumulative song; each verse included a satire at the expense of each rank: "Beer beer beer" said the privates, "Where's my three-day pass" said the corporals, "Drill drill drill" said the sergeant, "Who's gonna read my map" said the looie, "Who's gonna shine my boots" said the captain, "Who's gonna drive my jeep" said the major, "Who's gonna mow my lawn" said the colonel, "Who's gonna walk my dog" said the general. A version of the cadence can be heard on the 1960 album Belafonte Returns to Carnegie Hall by Harry Belafonte. Another can be found in a 1929 music book, "Sound Off!" Soldier songs from Yankee Doodle to Parley Voo"[12] by Edward Arthur Dolph.

In fiction[edit]

The Pickwick Papers (1836) by Charles Dickens contains a short tale called "The True Legend of Prince Bladud" concerning the founding of the city of Bath that is read by Pickwick while he is staying in the city. Within this Dickens describes "the famous and renowned Lud Hudibras, King of Britain", comparing him in likeness to "the venerable King Cole".

In his 1897 anthology Mother Goose in Prose, L. Frank Baum included a story explaining the background to the nursery rhyme. In this version, Cole is a commoner who is selected at random to succeed the King of Whatland when the latter dies without heir.

James Joyce made reference to the rhyme in Finnegans Wake (619.27f):

With pipe on bowl. Terce for a fiddler, sixt for makmerriers, none for a Cole.

Joyce is also punning on the canonical hours tierce (3), sext (6), and nones (9), in "Terce ... sixt ... none", and on Fionn MacCool and his Fianna, in "fiddlers ... makmerriers ... Cole".

The Old King Cole theme appeared twice in 1933 cartoons: Walt Disney made a Silly Symphony cartoon called "Old King Cole", in which the character holds a huge party where various nursery rhyme characters are invited. Walter Lantz produced an Oswald cartoon the same year, entitled The Merry Old Soul, which is in reference to the nursery rhyme.

"Farmer Giles of Ham" (1937) by J.R.R. Tolkien is stated (despite anachronisms like blunderbusses) by the author to take place "after the time of King Cole, but before king Arthur".

The Three Stooges' 1948 short film "Fiddlers Three" features Larry, Moe and Shemp as musicians in King Cole's court who must stop an evil wizard from stealing the king's daughter.

In the Fables comic book, King Cole was the long-time mayor of Fabletown, a secret community of "Fables" or fairytale characters, who were forced into exile in our world by a conqueror in their own alternate reality. He was defeated in an election by Prince Charming and was no longer mayor. He then became ambassador of Fabletown to the Arabian fables. After deciding to plan war to win back their homelands, he returned to Fabletown, assuming first the post of deputy mayor and then mayor respectively, after the resignation of Prince Charming. The gist of this storyline is reprised in the 2013 Fables video game The Wolf Among Us

Characters based on Cole have featured in other video games. In Banjo-Tooie (2000), there is a boss opponent named Old King Coal whom the duo battle over control of a steam train. After King Coal states he wishes to battle Banjo and Kazooie, Kazooie reples "But you're supposed to be a merry old soul!", further referencing the rhyme. In the online game AdventureQuest Worlds (2008) there is also a non-player character called Old King Coal.

In the 2009 animated movie Happily N'Ever After 2: Snow White—Another Bite @ the Apple, Old King Cole (voiced by Cam Clarke) is amalgamated with the king who is Snow White's father.

Paul Reakes wrote a stage pantomime adaptation, also called Old King Cole (2012).[13] It is a farce about the king choosing a queen from among his household staff, intended for school plays.[importance?]

In humour and satire[edit]

G. K. Chesterton wrote a poem ("Old King Cole: A Parody") which presented the nursery rhyme successively in the styles of several poets: Alfred Lord Tennyson, W. B. Yeats, Robert Browning, Walt Whitman, and Algernon Charles Swinburne. Much later, Mad ran a feature similarly postulating classical writers' treatments of fairy tales. The magazine had Edgar Allan Poe tackle "Old King Cole", resulting in a cadence similar to that of "The Bells":

Old King Cole was a merry old soul
Old King Cole, Cole, Cole, Cole, Cole, Cole, Cole.

In the 1970s, American stand-up comedian George Carlin offered this alternative:

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 -
     I guess we all know about Old King Cole...

Carlin's intonation of the final line suggested that the pipe and bowl should be interpreted as marijuana references.

In political cartoons and similar material, especially in Great Britain, sometimes Old King "Coal" has been used to symbolize the coal industry.


  1. ^ "bowl". Oxford English Dictionary (3rd ed.). Oxford University Press. September 2005. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  2. ^ https://academic.udayton.edu/health/syllabi/tobacco/history.htm#industry
  3. ^ https://www.thespeks.com/nursery-rhymes/old-king-cole.php
  4. ^ a b c d e f I. Opie and P. Opie, The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes (Oxford University Press, [1951] 1997), pp. 156–8.
  5. ^ North Devon and Exmoor Seascape Character Assessment, November 2015[1]
  6. ^ Alistair Moffat, The Borders: A History of the Borders from Earliest Times, ISBN 1841584665 (unpaginated)
  7. ^ Anthony Richard Birley, The People of Roman Britain, ISBN 0520041194, p. 160
  8. ^ Albert Jack, Pop Goes the Weasel: The Secret Meanings of Nursery Rhymes, ISBN 0399535551, s.v. 'Old King Cole'
  9. ^ see Opie and Opie, and discussion at Colchester#Name
  10. ^ "Magnificent Monarchs" p. 8 (Fact Attack series) by Ian Locke; published by MacMillan UK in 1999; ISBN 978-0330-374965
  11. ^ "U.S Army - Old King Cole". YouTube. 10 February 2008. Retrieved 15 July 2016.
  12. ^ "Sound off!" : soldier songs from Yankee Doodle to Parley voo (Musical score, 1929). OCLC 1485873.
  13. ^ Paul Reakes (2012). Old King Cole: A Pantomime. ISBN 9780573164484. Retrieved 15 July 2016.


  • Geoffrey of Monmouth (c. 1136). History of the Kings of Britain.
  • Huntingdon, Henry of (c. 1129), Historia Anglorum.
  • Kightley, C (1986), Folk Heroes of Britain. Thames & Hudson.
  • Morris, John. The Age of Arthur: A History of the British Isles from 350 to 650. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1973. ISBN 978-0-684-13313-3.
  • Opie, I & P (1951), The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes. Oxford University Press.
  • Skene, WF (1868), The Four Ancient Books of Wales. Edmonston & Douglas.