Are children still taught the old nursery rhymes? I know we were: Mary Mary, quite contrary, which was a sixteenth century political commentary on Mary, Queen of Scots, perhaps, Ring a ring of roses, which harked back to the days of the plague, and Old King Cole being his merry old soul.
Now Old King Cole was an interesting one that shows just how far back in time these old childhood rhymes stretch. It is unknown exactly who this cheery old monarch was, but as the nursery rhyme first surfaced in print in 1708, the words suit that period. There has been speculation that the original was a cloth merchant from Reading named Cole-brook, or a Celtic prince who created Colchester. Sir Walter Scott, inveterate collector of historical facts, lore and oddities, thought Cole may have been the father of Finn MacCool, a giant figure in pre-Christian Gaelic folklore.
Naturally documentary evidence is lacking. That is not surprising for in 1708 much of the population was illiterate, even in Scotland and more so in England, where the first written version appeared.Oral history, however has a knack of surviving the centuries, passed down in the form of stories and verse: such as Old King Cole.
There was a King Coel who was known as Coel Hen – Coel the Old – who was a British or Welsh king at a time the Romans were recoiling from Britannia and the island was facing waves of Saxon invaders. There are various versions of the tale, but one states that Cole was the progenitor of several dynasties in the old Welsh North. Now, as Welsh is the Old English term for a foreigner, meaning a British or non- English speaking person (remembering that the Saxons and Angles were Germanic/English speaking invaders from the continent), then the old Welsh north would be the northern British kingdoms: Rheged, Gododdin or Strathclyde. Rheged was situated around the Solway Firth, Gododdin based on Edinburgh and Lothian and Strathclyde approximately in the Glasgow and Ayrshire area.
If we take this to be true, then Coel Hen, old King Cole, would have ruled in what is now South West Scotland. A tenuous but interesting legend has the Ayrshire area of Kyle named after him.
After the defeat of a British army at Catraeth, possibly Catterick in Yorkshire around 600 AD, the victorious Anglo-Saxons, progenitors of the English, occupied what is now south-eastern Scotland and pressed westward. To escape these warlike pagans, there are legends of a British move southward to what is now Wales, with the Britons taking their culture with them. To add to the interest, a poem about the Battle of Catraeth includes a mention of Arthur, who may have been a captain of these Northern Britons fighting the Germanic hordes.
All well and good, but is any of this relevant to modern life, apart from explaining some of the folk movement within Britain and having a vague relevance to an old nursery rhyme. Well, there is a persistent Welsh-language legend that speaks openly of Coel Hen, Coel the Old, who was the ancestor of another Coel, the father of St Helena and therefore the grandfather of the Roman Emperor Constantine who Christianised the Roman Empire and therefore could be deemed the father of the Roman Catholic Church. That would give the birth of the Roman Catholic church a strong Scottish-British connection. We do know that the father of Constantine lived in York and campaigned north of Hadrian’s Wall. What was to stop him picking up a local wife? Many soldiers did. After all, Pontius Pilate’s mother was said to have come from Perthshire, (I used that legend in my novel, Powerstone) so why not Constantine’s mum as well?
So there we have it. A very fragile legend that links a nursery rhyme to Scotland and the birth of the Roman Catholic Church. As Michael never said: ‘not many people know that’.