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Ben Edge - the earl of rone photograph taken in Combe Martin
Photo credit: Ben Edge

Customs uncovered: The Hunting of the Earl of Rone

Once a year, over the long Spring Bank Holiday weekend, the occupants of Combe Martin, the Earl of Rone Council, and a fair number of spectators enact this fascinating tradition. Alex Hurr takes a deep dive into its history, but warns of distinct fever-dream vibes along the way.

The Hunting of the Earl of Rone is a little-known and woefully under-celebrated tradition repeated yearly in Combe Martin, a small town in North Devon. It involves dances, a cast of unlikely characters, elaborate dress codes, drums, theatre, a little bit of drowning, and more murder than you would expect from such a tranquil village. It is enacted in a very particular manner; the ritual is curiously complex and drenched in forgotten symbolism, and some elements appear to be unique to this event. All of which begs the question: how did it come to this?

The Hunting of the Earl of Rone takes place over four days, as all good parties should, and, with roots in Irish history, ‘Man of the Woods’ Pagan folklore, and resonances of the Catholic Stations of the Cross, takes quaint colloquial English village custom to the next level.

In this article you’ll find…

Meet the Earl

Now, about the Earl – we’re talking costumed, and we’re talking elaborate. The clothing is mostly constructed from padded (this will help during the events of the day) burlap sack material, with a bold red and black mask. Beautifully made, the exact origins of the mask’s design are unknown, but are thought to be an evolution of the ‘Man in the Woods’ tradition, though there are also similarities to Padstow’s ‘Obby ‘Oss festival horse. There’s one more notable feature of the Earl’s costume: he’s wearing what can only be described as a series of freakishly large malted milk biscuits threaded together to create some sort of large fashionable necklace. I have questions, too, believe me. 

Getting started

On Friday, the Grenadiers, carrying frighteningly realistic guns (sound effects and all), their Captain, the Drums and the villagers process through the streets to Lady’s Wood where the Earl of Rone, necklace and all, is hiding. The Grenadiers wear dashing red coats (think 17th-century-traditional-dress-with-a-Morris-twist) and pointy hats full of frilly multicoloured ribbon. For most little English villages, this would be quite enough of a hoopla, and after a smidge of candy floss and once round the fair, it would be straight to bed and back to normality. Not for Combe Martin, however. We’ve only just kicked off.

Rinse and repeat

On Saturday, the procession happens again. This time it’s aimed toward the children of the village – one can only assume in some sort of attempt at rural indoctrination. There are reports that this procession ends in the eating of a large strawberry sponge cake. Sadly, no further evidence of this claim was available at the time of writing. On Sunday – you guessed it – the procession is repeated once more (tradition is all about repetition, after all). The difference this time is that the whole cast attends. Enter stage left, please: the Hobby Horse, the Fool, multiple maidens, runners, rope carriers, beer carriers, musicians and, of course, a Master of Ceremonies. The outfit is now substantial and is quite the scene to behold.

Capturing the Earl of Rone

On the fourth and final day, an elaborate ceremony heralds the climax of the hunt. You’ll be pleased to know that after three days of traipsing up and down from village to Lady’s Wood, the Earl of Rone is located and captured. The whole sordid crew is there – maidens, beer carriers, the lot – but the Grenadiers step up to do the deed. They throw him onto a donkey, backwards (this seems important, but it’s honestly hard to be sure why).

Once the Earl is captured, usually to powerful applause and cheers from the villagers and bystanders, he is paraded, back-to front on the donkey, through the village and down towards the sea. Throughout this procession, in a show of gratuitous violence, the Grenadiers shoot the Earl in a ‘firing squad’-style execution. The Earl tumbles off the donkey, protected by that thick padded outfit. The Hobby Horse finally has its moment in the spotlight – along with the Fool – as it aids the wounded Earl, healing him sufficiently to be remounted on the donkey, swept aloft by a broom of corn. It should be noted that this Hobby Horse is unlike any I’ve ever seen – circular like that of Padstow, but with significantly more colour, echoing the bright multicoloured ribbon we see on the Grenadiers’ hats.

This routine is repeated along the journey towards the sea – the onlookers cheer and applaud each time the Earl is killed, but boo and hiss whenever he is miraculously resurrected. This is a true street pantomime! There’s a great deal of dancing along the way too, and the Hobby Horse sways and spins with impressive vigour throughout the long procession. Eventually, the parade reaches the sea and, at the final execution, even the best efforts of the self-appointed medical team aren’t enough to revive the Earl. After four days of rigmarole and ceremony, the exhausted Grenadiers have only the energy to pick him up and toss him into the sea like a sack of coins. The crowd jubilates, the drums rat-a-tat-tat and the villagers dance. 

So there you have it – a rough guide to Hunting of the Earl of Rone. You’d be perfectly justified in asking what on earth this all about. And how does a custom, a yearly tradition like this come about? And what does it symbolise? These are fine questions, and ones that experts (notably Tom Brown) have been scratching their heads over for decades, but the conclusions are sparse.

So, what do we maybe definitely know?

There’s agreement that we can be quite confident about the identity of our original Earl: one Hugh O’Neill, the second Earl of Tyrone, part of the Tudor conquest of Ireland and a leader in the Nine Years’ War (1593 to 1603). As for the ‘Hunting of the…’ element of the name? That’s thought to be a reference to the time O’Neill hid in Glenconkeyne Wood toward the end of the war. Combe Martin has a number of connections with this battle and thus the theory has been reached that the Earl is connected to Ascension day customs. That, in conjunction with the English reformation and general custom evolution, has given us what might be one of the wackiest cultural events alive in Britain today. 

No one can really be sure where many of these unusual traditions come from – tradition is more complex than ‘cause and effect’. If you’d like some further reading on this enormous subject matter, Brown has an excellent article on Folklore Motifs and the evolution of traditions that have been witnessed within the last 50 years. In it, he suggests that small changes are being enacted all the time, and can very quickly be accepted as traditional. Maybe this explains the seeming lack of a clear cut meaning in Combe Martin’s four-day fiesta?

If we are to take any learning away from the whole outlandish affair, I propose that it should be this: customs like the Hunting of the Earl of Rone should be of greatest importance to the community that comes together, organises and celebrates them, and that same community, as its temporary custodians, should be able to develop the tradition along the way, should they see fit. Tradition isn’t necessarily dictated by the actions, the costumes, or the crazy random characters in a fascinating story, but is shaped by those that take part, often time and time again. It becomes a part of their community – another piece of the jigsaw. Tradition is looking forward, just as much as it is looking back.

Tradition is tending the flame, not worshipping the ashes. 

Gustav Mahler

This year’s events take place from 27th-30th May. For more information, head to earl-of-rone.org.uk. The lead photo was taken by NK Farr, who runs the Feral Borders Instagram account, a visual exploration of folklore and folk customs.