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King Cole and the Riddle of the Fiddle

Updated on December 11, 2013

A Merry Old Soul...

Old King Cole
Old King Cole

what is the truth behind this age-old rhyme?

Like every child in the western world, I gleefully recited the nursery rhyme, Old King Cole, at birthday and Christmas parties:

Old King Cole was a merry old soul, and a merry old soul was he…

As I grew older, I dismissed King Cole and all nursery rhyme subjects as mere fantasy. However, over time I learned that a number of kings named Cole really did live in Britain. In the majority of picture book illustrations, Cole is shown as a medieval monarch, with ermine trimmed red cloak and gold crown, but all the kings that he is possibly based on were Celtic and lived in Roman and post-Roman times. The earliest recorded Cole, pronounced “coil”, was a Brythonic or Britannic king that lived from 85 to 170 AD. Though he was born in Wales, he lived and died in the Essex town of Colchester “Cole’s Castle”, thus giving the town its name. He married Ystradawl Mawr and they had a son, Lucius Loover (105-101).

Another Cole was Coel Godhebog (Cole the Magnificent), who was born in 220. He also lived in Colchester and served the Romans as a Decurion. There is a popular belief that King Cole was the father of (Saint) Helena of Constantinople, who became the mother of Roman emperor Constantine the Great (272-337). This is possible since Helena lived between 248 and 330, and historians are uncertain as to where she was born. Another Cole is the later Coel Hen (350 – 420), who ruled in southern Scotland and northern England at around the time when the Romans were withdrawing from Britain. Interestingly, his nickname was Coel the Old, since seventy was a great age in Roman times. His son, St Cenu ap Coel is described by Geoffry of Monmouth in Historia Regum Britanniae as attending the coronation of King Arthur. However, a saint is unlikely to have called for his pipe, his bowl and his fiddlers three, and is not a contender for our nursery rhyme hero. Cole the Magnificent seems the most likely subject. For me, the most intriguing question is: did fiddles exist in Roman times?

The Genesis of the Fiddle

The earliest instruments, like the lyre of the ancient Greeks, had strings that were plucked. Mongolian horsemen from the central Asian steppes drew bows strung with horsehair across the morin khurr, a two-string instrument. Experts believe that early European fiddles evolved from these Mongolian instruments – the horsehair bow is still in use today. Another likely candidate for King Cole’s instrument is the Byzantine lira, a group of bowed instruments that were recorded in use by the tenth century. Could Cole the Magnificent (and all the other Coles) have played a stringed ancestor of the Byzantine lira, all those hundreds of years ago?

Since the Romano-British and Byzantine cultures were not a million miles apart, this a distinct possibility. Around the time of the Renaissance, there was an evolotion among primitive, stringed folk instruments. The musical instrument that we call a violin gained its elegant, aristocratic appearance during this time while other stringed instruments developed into a range of modern folk instruments like the guitar and the hurdy-gurdy. The hurdy-gurdy is not a barrell organ, by the way, which is a only a music box played with a handle, but an instrument in its own right played in folk groups throughout the world. Generally, the word “fiddle” is a colloquialism for the more formal word “violin”.

Whatever, I love to think of Cole the Magnificent at this time of year, smoking his pipe, making merry and making music in his heated Roman palace in Essex: Oh there's none so rare, as can compare with King Cole and his fiddlers three….

Collier's Encyclopedia


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