Coel Hên, Coel of Kaercolun
According to a sixteenth-century manuscript, an ancestor of Arthur through his mother. Stuart-Knill also claims he was one of Arthur’s ancestors.
He was possibly a historical figure who flourished in the North Country in the early fifth century (c. 410s – c. 430s). He was almost certainly a native Briton whose forebears had probably been high-ranking individuals amongst the Romano-British nobility. He was likely to be either from the British tribe of the Brigantes or, more likely, the Votadini.
Tradition gives him a wife named Stradwawl (‘road-well’) and a daughter called Gwawl (‘wall’), which tends to reinforce this. Gwawl may have been the wife of Cunedda. John Morris suggests that he was the last Dux Brittaniarum (dux bellorum).
In the late fourth century and early fifth century the northern frontier of the Roman empire, which had retrenched along Hadrian’s Wall, came under fierce attack from the Picts to the north. Following the withdrawal of support from Rome in 410, the British were left to fend for themselves. In such events leaders emerge, and it was under these circumstances that Coel emerged. He met the need for strong leadership to protect the northern British against the Picts as well as from incursions by the Irish who, over the last century, had made regular forays into the Galloway territory of what is now Scotland.
A great body of legend grew up about him. He was thought to have been the founder and ruler – king (Henry of Huntingdon), duke (Geoffrey of Monmouth) – of Colchester, tradition pushing him back some centuries. Geoffrey says he took the throne of Britain from King Asclepiodotus in the early fourth century. He acquiesced the power of Rome on the condition that he be allowed to keep the crown. He died soon afterwards.
His city, according to legend, was besieged by the Roman emperor Constantius Chlorus (ruled AD 305-306) for three years, after which the roman warrior Constantine married Helena, Coel’s daughter, and became king. Their son was Constantine the Great (born AD 265). A fourteenth-century manuscript says Coel became king of all Britain and died in AD 267.
His historicity is uncertain. The adjective hen (old) was applied to him. There can be little doubt he was the Old King Cole of nursery rhyme. Coel has become the name associated with whichever leader first took control during this period of considerable unrest.
Historia Anglorum | Henry of Huntingdon, c. 1129
Historia Regum Britanniae | Geoffrey of Monmouth, c. 1138
Roman de Brut | Wace, c. 1155