Know one knows for sure who Old King Cole really was. His identity has been debated for centuries. This song can be found in print as early as 1708-9*.

Old King Cole - English Children's Songs - England - Mama Lisa's World: Children's Songs and Rhymes from Around the World  - Intro Image

Notes

*As per the Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes by Iona and Peter Opie (1951), which found the earliest print version of "Old King Cole" in "Useful Transactions in Philosophy" by William King (1708-9).

Here's a slightly different version from The Little Mother Goose (1912), illustrated by Jessie Willcox Smith:

Old King Cole was a merry old soul,
And a merry old soul was he;
And he called for his pipe,
And he called for his bowl,
And he called for his fiddlers three.
And every fiddler, he had a fine fiddle,
And a very fine fiddle had he;
"Tweedle dee, tweedle dee," said the fiddlers:
"Oh, there's none so rare as can compare
With King Cole and his fiddlers three."

Old King Cole - English Children's Songs - England - Mama Lisa's World: Children's Songs and Rhymes from Around the World  - Comment After Song Image
Old King Cole - English Children's Songs - England - Mama Lisa's World: Children's Songs and Rhymes from Around the World 1
Old King Cole - English Children's Songs - England - Mama Lisa's World: Children's Songs and Rhymes from Around the World 2

Comments

Here's what Halliwell (a 19th century collector of nursery rhymes) wrote about this rhyme, "The traditional Nursery Rhymes of England commence with a legendary satire on King Cole, who reigned in Britain, as the old chroniclers inform us, in the third century after Christ. According to Robert of Gloucester, he was the father of St. Helena, and if so, Butler must be wrong in ascribing an obscure origin to the celebrated mother of Constantine. King Cole was a brave and popular man in his day, and ascended the throne of Britain on the death of Asclepiod, amidst the acclamations of the people, or, as Robert of Gloucester expresses himself, the "fole was tho of this lond y-paid wel y-nou." At Colchester there is a large earthwork, supposed to have been a Roman amphitheatre, which goes popularly by the name of "King Cole's kitchen." According to Jeffrey of Monmouth, King Cole's daughter was well skilled in music, but we unfortunately have no evidence to show that her father was attached to that science, further than what is contained in the foregoing lines, which are of doubtful antiquity. The following version of the song is of the seventeenth century, the one given above being probably a modernization:-

Good King Cole,
He call'd for his bowl,
And he call'd for fidlers three:
And there was fiddle fiddle,
And twice fiddle fiddle,
For 'twas my lady's birth-day;
Therefore we keep holiday,
And come to be merry."

Listen

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The 2nd recording comes from Librivox's "Mother Goose's Party".

Sheet Music

Sheet Music - Old King Cole

Thanks and Acknowledgements

The first illustration comes from The National Nursery Book. The second illustration and the score come from The Baby's Opera by Walter Crane (circa 1877). The third image comes from The Nursery Rhyme Book, edited by Andrew Lang and illustrated by L. Leslie Brooke (1897). This rhyme and the 4th illustration can be found in "The Nursery Rhymes of England" 5th edition (1886), collected by James Orchard Halliwell and illustrated by W. B. Scott.

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