The Hunting of the Earl of Rone is a quirky tradition, celebrated annually by the people of Combe Martin in North Devon. So, what’s the story behind it?
The History of the Earl of Rone
Who exactly is the Earl of Rone, and why is he being hunted? The curious history of The Hunting of the Earl of Rone begins with Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone. According to local legend, O’Neill made his escape from Ireland and came to North Devon to hide. He survived for quite some time on biscuits and the few food sources available around him until Grenadiers captured him and, we are to assume, killed him.
Ironically, history spins a different tale: The Earl of Tyrone made it to Spain and remained free to live out his days in peace. Many different theories have been given as to why this earl became the subject of Combe Martin’s yearly custom, but one thing is for certain – rather than celebrating a famous figure’s demise, the celebration is instead a joyful reminder of Combe Martin’s rich history and the wonderful people who live there.
What Is the Hunting of the Earl of Rone?
The custom itself is charming, but peculiar. Much like the legend states, the Earl of Rone is supposedly in hiding (placed in a secret location by one of the town’s officials or residents) and must be found. The search takes place over four days during the Spring Bank Holiday, crowds winding through the village streets on a pre-planned course. Grenadiers, the Fool and the Hobby Horse are among the crowd, and they play an intricate part in the custom.
When searching for the Earl of Rone, the crowd follows a long-standing tradition of passing in silence in front of Lynton Cottage. This procession is in memory of a villager who fell to his death from the steps of Lynton Cottage, breaking his neck. This death was part of the reason The Hunting of the Earl of Rone custom was banned in 1837. Among other reasons were drunkenness and licentiousness. Thankfully, the custom was renewed in 1974 and has continued on ever since.
The earl is finally found on Monday night and paraded through the streets on the donkey (represented by the Hobby Horse). The custom demands a real person wear the Earl of Rone costume, but an effigy is used for the final toss into the sea at his ‘final death’. The Grenadiers have plenty of fun ‘shooting’ him along the way, and the Fool revives him anytime he falls off the donkey. Once they reach the coast, the effigy is promptly flung out into the ocean and allowed to float away.
Who Can Participate in The Hunting?
In order to join the procession through the village, you must be a resident (current or former) of Combe Martin or one of the surrounding parishes. The procession is divided up into two parties: the Senior Party and the Junior Party. Ages 14 or older are allowed to go with the Senior Party. Children up to ages 17 can join the Junior Party, which begins a day later on Saturday. Formal invitations have been given to non-residents or those related to any person involved in bringing the tradition back.
Dress guidelines aren’t as strict as they used to be, but some formal attire is required. Women should dress as 19th century villagers, often with peasant garbs consisting of long skirts, aprons, shawls, bonnets and cloaks. No wellies, crocs or trainers are allowed! Neither are backpacks, but bum-bags can be worn at the front or back. Men should avoid wearing modern dress such as baseball caps, puffer jackets or jeans, and they should instead opt for corduroy trousers and collar-less shirts with waistcoats. Capes are also allowed for men.
What’s On for 2016?
This year’s Hunting of the Earl of Rone will start on Friday, May 27th at 6:45 p.m., just in time for older children to get home to join the Senior Party. The Junior Party will depart from the school at 11 a.m. on Saturday, May 28th, and the weekend’s festivities will wrap up on the evening of Tuesday, May 31st with a wash-up for both parties. The earl’s death will take place the previous evening on the beach at sunset. If you’re not a resident of the Combe Martin area, and you’d still like to watch the event, you can stop by and donate to the good causes who are collecting money in lieu of an entry fee.