Old King Cole

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This article is about the English nursery rhyme. For the film, see Old King Cole (film). For other subjects with similar names, see King Cole (disambiguation).
"Old King Cole"
Roud Folk Song Index #1164
Old King Cole 2 - WW Denslow - Project Gutenberg etext 18546.jpg
Old King Cole, by William Wallace Denslow
Written England
Published 1708-9
Form Nursery rhyme
Writer Traditional
Language English

"Old King Cole" is a British nursery rhyme most likely deriving from ancient Welsh. The historical identity of King Cole has been much debated and several candidates have been advanced as possibilities. It has a Roud Folk Song Index number of 1164. The poem describes a merry king who called for his pipe, his bowl, and his three fiddlers.


The song was first recorded by William King in his Useful Transactions in Philosophy in 1708–9.[1]

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.[1]

William 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.[1]


A Brythonic name, Cole is or more properly Coel, pronounced like "co-ell" or the English word "coil", and not "coal" as in the rhyme. It may have been borne by a number of noted figures in the history and legends of Roman and sub-Roman Britain, most notably by Coel Hen, or Coel the Old. There are several candidates for a historical basis to the rhyme amongst the historical and mythical Coels.

King Cole of Northern Britain[edit]

Main article: King Cole

Coel Hen, whose epithet can be translated as "the Old" or "the Ancestor", is noted in Welsh legend as a leader in the Hen Ogledd or "Old North", the Brythonic-speaking parts of southern Scotland and northern England during or after the period of the Roman withdrawal. The historian John Morris in The Age of Arthur suggested that "The early tradition is that Coel ruled the whole of the north, south of the [Hadrian's] Wall, the territory that the Notitia assigned to the dux [Roman military leader]; but that in later generations it split into a number of independent kingdoms. It suggests that ... he was the last Roman commander, who turned his command into a kingdom."[2] He is credited with founding a number of kingly lines in the North and was regarded as an ancestor figure, suggesting that the territory he controlled must have been substantial.[why?]

Medieval Legend[edit]

Later writers such as Henry of Huntington and Geoffrey of Monmouth associate him with Colchester (from where he launched a rebellion which would overthrow the Roman governor Julius Asclepiodotus) and make him the father of Saint Helena of Constantinople, the mother of Constantine the Great.[3][4] Geoffrey's Historia Regum Britanniae expands on the legend of Coel, including material about his rule as king of the Britons and his dealings with the Romans.[4]

Thomas Cole-brook[edit]

In the 19th century William Chappell, an expert on popular music, suggested the possibility that the "Old King Cole" of nursery rhyme fame was really "Old Cole", alias Thomas Cole-brook, a supposed 12th-century Reading cloth merchant whose story was recounted by Thomas Deloney in his The Pleasant History of Thomas of Reading (c. 1598), and who was well known as a character in plays of the early 17th century.[1]


"Pipe" may refer to a musical instrument (perhaps a flute or recorder), supported by the final lyrics of the song "there's none so rare, As can compare With King Cole and his fiddlers three", which seem to suggest that King Cole and his fiddlers played music together as a group. The term "pipe" is commonly used as an "informal term for a flute or recorder". The word ceol actually means music in Gaelic, and this may be the origin of the name in the rhyme.[5]

Modern usage[edit]

King Cole is often referenced in popular culture.

In popular usage

In literature

  • 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.

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

Joyce is at the same time punning on the canonical hours Tierce, Sext, Nones (Terce ... sixt ... none) and on Fionn MacCool (fiddlers ... makmerriers ... Cole).

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.

Stage Version

  • Paul Reakes wrote a pantomime called Old King Cole.[6]

In popular music

  • 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.

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?

  • Cole Alexander of Atlanta punk band Black Lips performs solo as Old King Cole Younger, a name also partially derived from Confederate guerilla Cole Younger.

In magazines

  • Mad ran a feature 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 humour

  • In the 1970s, American 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.

° A parody is often sung to the tune of "The Old Chisolm Trail," and appears in "All the Pretty Horses" by Cormac MacCarthy:

"Old King Cole (Grady Cole) was a merry old soul With a buckskin belly and a rubber asshole."

In military cadence

  • The United States military also has a version in the form of a marching cadence, used from the 1980s into the present:

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 included a verse 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 can be heard on the 1960 album Belafonte Returns to Carnegie Hall by Harry Belafonte. It can also be found in a 1929 music book "Sound Off!" Soldier songs from Yankee Doodle to Parley Voo"[7] by Edward Arthur Dolph.

In comics and graphic novels

  • In the Fables comic book, King Cole was the long-time mayor of 'Fabletown', a secret community of 'Fables', who were forced into exile in our world by a conqueror at home. 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 has since returned to Fabletown, assuming first the post of deputy mayor and then mayor respectively, after the resignation of Prince Charming.

In video games

  • In the video game Banjo-Tooie, there is a boss named Old King Coal. After King Coal says that he wishes to battle Banjo and Kazooie, Kazooie reples with "I thought you were a merry old soul?", further referencing the rhyme.
  • In the 2013 video game The Wolf Among Us, an adaptation of the Fables comic books, King Cole is the mayor of Fabletown.
  • In the online game AdventureQuest Worlds there is an NPC called Old King Coal.

In T.V. shows

  • The song was sung on the T.V. show Barney & Friends, but with the last few lyrics changed (which were also adjusted for the drummer and trumpeter verses).

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

In film

  • The Three Stooges' short "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 political cartoons

  • In political cartoons and similar in Britain, sometimes Old King Cole has been used to symbolize the coal industry.

In Yiddish

  • In 1927, Moshe Nadir (1885–1943) published his Yiddish version, Der Rebbe Elimelech. It has since become a popular Yiddish folksong.


  1. ^ a b c d I. Opie and P. Opie, The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes (Oxford University Press, 1951, 2nd edn., 1997), pp. 134–5.
  2. ^ Morris, p 54
  3. ^ Henry of Huntingdon, Historia Anglorum Book I, ch. 37.
  4. ^ a b Geoffrey of Monmouth, Historia Regum Britanniae, Book 5, ch. 6.
  5. ^ N. Macleod and D. Dewar, A Dictionary of the Gaelic Language, in Two Parts (W. R. M'Phun, 1853), p. 135.
  6. ^ Book of pantomime Old King Cole
  7. ^ [1]


  • Huntingdon, Henry of (c.1129), Historia Anglorum.
  • Kightley, C (1986), Folk Heroes of Britain. Thames & Hudson.
  • Monmouth, Geoffrey of (1136). History of the Kings of Britain.
  • 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.