The Origins of ‚Old King Coal‘

Tim Walker

Those nursery rhymes we learned at our mother’s knee often have their origins in real historical characters or events, often in early history, and immortalised in song. This is the case with ‘Old King Coal’.

The song is based on the folk memory of a celebrated regional king of Britain who ruled towards the end of the Roman occupation of Britain, and may have held an imperial office – Dux Brittonum – guardian of the territory either side of Hadrian’s Wall – keeping the peace on behalf of the Roman Empire, based at York.
Old King Coal is though to be Coel Hen (‘Hen’ meaning ‘Old‘ in the Brythonic tongue spoken by the Britons in the pre-Anglo-Saxon era). King Coel is thought to have reigned from around 380-410.

He imposed his power over a large area of the north, from a line joining Chester and the Wash and up into…

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