Coel Hen or Coel the Old is known to most of us through the famous nursery rhyme:
Old King Cole was a merry old
He is also a familiar figure in ancient Welsh genealogies, for most of the Celtic monarchies of Nothern Britain claimed descent from him. He appears to have lived around the turn from the 4th to the 5th century, the time when the Roman army and administration returned to Italy, leaving Britain and her people to fend for themselves. Coel's particular association with the north of Britain has led to the suggestion that he may actually have been the last of the Roman Duces Brittanniarum with his headquarters at Caer Ebrauc (York). He certainly imposed his power over a great swathe of the country and can be considered the first King in Northern Britain.
There is an old story told in the North about Coel's last campaign. What is now Scotland was originally inhabited by both Brythonic and Pictish tribes. It was during Coel's time that immigrant Irishmen of the Scotti tribe began to settle the Western coast around Argyle. Coel, fearing that these Northern peoples would unite against his domain south of Hadrian's Wall, sent raiding parties across his northern border to stir up discord between them. The plan, however, backfired for the Picts and the Scots were not taken in. Coel merely succeeded in pushing the two even closer together, and they began to attack the British Kingdom of Strathclyde. Coel declared all out war and moved north to expel the invaders. The Picts and Scots fled to the hills ahead of Coel's army, who eventually set up camp at what became Coylton alongside the Water of Coyle (Ayrshire). For a long time, the British were triumphant, while the Scots and Picts starved. Desperate for some relief, however, the enemy advanced an all-or-nothing attack on Coel's stronghold. Coel and his men were taken by surprise, overrun and scattered to the winds. It is said that Coel wandered the unknown countryside until he eventually got caught in a bog at Coilsfield (in Tarbolton, Ayrshire) and drowned. Coel was first buried in a mound there before being removed to the church at Coylton. The year was about AD 420. After his death, tradition says that Coel's Northern kingdom was divided between two of his sons, Ceneu and Gorbanian.
This Coel should not be confused with the legendary Coel Godhebog 'the Magnificent', Lord of Colchester, whose daughter, St. Helen, supposedly married the Emperor Constantius Chlorus two centuries earlier.
Records of Coel hen date back to the 10th century. Some historians accept him as historic.
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