So runs a traditional nursery rhyme the earliest mention of which appeared in 1708-9. Cole, or more properly Coel (pronounced like the English word coil), is a Brythonic (Cumbric) name possibly derived from the Roman Caelius, and there are several candidates for a historical basis to the rhyme amongst both the legendary and historical kings of the Romano-British and sub-Roman period.
In his largely fictional History of the Kings of Britan, Geoffrey of Monmouth lists a Coel as a king of the Britons following the reign of King Asclepiodotus. Geoffrey states that, upset with Asclepiodotus's handling of Diocletian's massacres, Coel began a rebellion in the duchy of Caercolun (Colchester), of which he was duke. He met Asclepiodotus in battle and killed him, thus taking the kingship of Britain upon himself. Rome, apparently, was thrilled that Britain had a new king and sent a senator, Constantius Chlorus, to negotiate with Coel. Afraid of the Romans, Coel met Constantius and agreed to pay tribute and submit to Roman laws as long as he was allowed to retain the kingship of Britain. Constantius agreed to these terms but, one month later, Coel died. Constantius married Coel's daughter, Helena, and crowned himself as Coel's successor. Helen later gave birth to a son who became the Emperor, Constantine the Great.
Native client kings only survived for a few years after the Roman invasion, but leading tribal families may still have held positions of power at this later period. This character is, however, most likely to be a memory of the great pre-Roman King Cunobelinus of the Catuvellauni tribe – Shakespeare's Cymbeline – who made Colchester his capital. Yet another possibility is that Cole is the Celtic deity, Camulus, a god of war. The old Brythonic name of Colchester was Camulodunum, and the derivation sequence /kamul/ (+ lenition) > /kawul/ > /kaul/ > /ko:l/ is possible, especially among the Celtic languages. If Camulus is Cole, then Colchester (from the Latin for 'Cole's fortress') and Camulodunum (from Brythonic Celtic for 'Camulus' fortress') are synonyms. It is possible that the Latin form is a calque on the Celtic.
Projections back from dated individuals suggest that Coel Hen lived around AD 350–420, during the time when the Romans withdrew their forces from Britain. This has led historians, such as John Morris, to suggest that he may have been the last of the Roman Duces Brittanniarum (Dukes of the Britons) who commanded the Roman army in Northern Britain. 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. WF Skene recorded traditions of his death whilst campaigning in the Kyle district of what was later called Ayrshire (Scotland), which was subsequently named after him.
Welsh sources also give this man the alternative name of Coel Godhebog, meaning 'Coel the Magnificent' or 'Coel the Defender', but David Nash Ford considers this name may have been transferred from Cole of Colchester. From the 15th century to the 18th century, the two were certainly much confused. There are a number of other lesser known Coels mentioned in various Old Welsh sources too.
In Canada, King Cole is a brand of tea which has been manufactured by G.E. Barbour Inc for about a century.
The late Nat 'King' Cole (actual surname Coles) has stated in the past that he based his name on the fable of King Cole, the merry old soul.
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.
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 the 1970s, American comedian George Carlin offered this alternative:
The United States military also has a version in the form of a marching cadence during the 1980s and in to 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 captain that included a dig at each rank.
There seems to be a reference to the nursery rhyme in Joyce's Finnegans Wake (619.27f):
"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 Finn MacCool (fiddlers ... makmerriers ... Cole)
Queen's song "Great King Rat":
"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?"