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Old King Cole

A legendary king of Celtic Britain, about all that can be said about Old King Cole with any certainty is that:

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

So runs a traditional nursery rhyme. In fact, there may have been a historical King Cole, or Coel, who may have lived in the third century, and who was the eponymous founder of the city of Colchester in Essex, England. "Colchester" means "Cole's castle." These legendary tales are sometimes included with the more familiar tales of King Arthur and his knights in the Matter of Britain. There may have been two rulers of that name in Colchester, a Coel Godhebog, or Cole the Magnificent; and Coel Hen, Cole the Old. Little definite is known of either monarch, or whether there were indeed two Coles, only one, or whether he is purely legendary. Another vein of legend links him to Cunobelinus, Shakespeare's Cymbeline.

Yet another possibility is that Cole is the Celtic deity Camulus, god of war. The old name of Colchester was Camulodunum, and the derivation sequence /kamul/ (+ lenition) > /kawul/ > /kaul/ > /ko:l/ is not impossible, especially among the Celtic languages. If Camulus is Cole, then Colchester (from the Latin for "Cole's fortress") and Camulodunum (from Brythonic Celtic for "the fortress of Camulus") are synonyms; it is likely that the Latin form is a calque on the Celtic.

Colchester contains an old Roman quarry that is called "King Cole's Kitchen". Geoffrey of Monmouth claims that Cole was the father of Saint Helena, mother of the Emperor Constantine. The word ceol means music in Gaelic, and this may be the origin of the rhyme about Cole and his fiddlers.

Some think that it is unlikely that the nursery rhyme was written before 1585, when Sir Walter Raleigh introduced tobacco into England. Others think that the "pipe" referred to may not have been a smoking pipe, but rather a musical instrument.

In the United States, King Coal is sometimes invoked as a metaphor for the centrality of coal mining in the economy of Appalachia, a role similar to that played by King Cotton in the Deep South