The Hunting of the Earl of Rone in Combe Martin

Click the picture above to watch our video of the Earl of Rone Festival

Modified on May 29, 2024

Combe Martin's Annual Earl of 'Rone Festival 

The historic Hunting of the Earl of 'Rone [Tyrone] is an annual colourful trad/folk festival, unique to Combe Martin, North Devon. Nowadays a traditional festive celebration, elements of this ancient ritual could be interpreted as symbolic acts of sacrifice and resurrection.

This popular tourist attraction features costume actors - mummers or guisers -  and bands. The festival takes place over the last four days of every spring bank holiday weekend, at the end of May. Visit the official website for details ˃

No animal or human is actually harmed in this annual Tradfolk pageant. Any factual basis for the real O’Neill being in Combe Martin arises from stories that he landed at or near Combe Martin; and hid here while en route to exile.

Hunting the Earl of Rone Videos 

Along with this summary of the festival, we have posted our own Earl of Rone photographs and video. In addition, we have received a remarkable video of this festival from 1998 which can be viewed here: Earl of Rone Festival 1998 ˃

Several videos of the festival have been posted on YouTube over the years.

The Colour Photo Album at Combe Martin Museum

A colour photo album from the Combe Martin festival - donated by J.P. - is on display in the collection of Combe Martin Museum on Cross Street. The full album is included here.

The Earl of 'Rone Mummers and Regalia

The pageant's guisers or mummer costumes, along with regalia and the hobby- horse, can be seen along with videos in Combe Martin Museum.

The Earl's mummer mask, customary attire, and biscuit necklace, along with the donkey decorated with flowers and biscuits, all indicate the ceremonial sacrifice inherent in this tradition. Over time, the original meaning has faded and the ‘Hunting’ has gradually segued to a festive gala.

The costumes and proceedings are slightly different to the originals up to 1837. You can find out more from Combe Martin Museum, where you can also watch a documentary.

The Legend of the Earl of 'Rone 

Over a century ago, visiting travel-writers Fred J. Snell (1906) and cohort doubted whether more than a few Combe Martin 'shammickites', or visitors, had an inkling of the history or what they were celebrating. 

Nowadays the festival is widely reported in the press and online; and Combe Martin's Earl of Rone Council ensures the annual custom and its history remain in the public eye. Visit The Hunting of the Earl of Rone website for more details.

What most of Combe Martin remembers about its hunted bête noire folk play is that in 1565 an insurrection broke out in Ireland; under one Shane O'Neill, Irish chieftain son of the Earl of Tyrone.

The second rebellion was led by James Fitzgerald in 1568 and then by Gerald Fitzgerald in 1579. third rebellion was led by Hugh O'Neill, 2nd Earl of Tyrone, in 1598 (Snell, J.F., North Devon, 1901).

The Red Hand of Ó Néill

A number of Devon adventurers offered to conquer and hold a province in Ireland at their own expense, if Queen Elizabeth I would give it to them. Early in the reign of James I, the Red Hand of Ó Néill suffered brief captivity in England, and Combmartin folklore holds that he landed from a skiff on her shore (ibid).

Historic Accounts of Combe Martin's Earl of Rone Festival

The "hunting" of this shadowy, mythical refugee Earl was the pretext of the Ascensiontide sport in old Combmartin (Snell, F.J., 1906, North Devon, pp. 56-59). Such 'pagan merriment' was unpopular with Church authorities across the British Isles.

Before 1837, the Combe Martin festival lasted a whole week, and seems to have been much more rowdy and rough than the modern revival. Always a colourful and surreal event, Combe Martin's traditional folk culture pageant was banned in 1837, and restarted in the early 1970s.

During the festival, the much-celebrated Combe Martin 'Obby-Oss' dances and sways through the packed streets, while the frantic 'Fool' or 'Teaser' incites and guides it on its journey.

In an early account of Combe Martin's nineteenth-century Earl of 'Rone festival, literary tourist John Presland described the procession in the book, Lynton and Lynmouth: A Pageant of Cliff and Moorland (1917):

In the Ascensiontide sports, the Earl wore a grotesque costume: a mask, and a smock padded with straw. Round his neck was a chain of sea-biscuits. He had with him a hobby-horse, and a buffoon covered with fantastic trappings.

There was also a "mapper" or "snapper"; representing the teeth and jaws of a horse. The Earl also rode a donkey decorated with flowers and with a necklace of sea-biscuits.

The hunters wore a sort of fantastic grenadier costume. A few days before Ascension Day this strange cortege went in procession round the neighbourhood.

The ceremony on Ascension Day happened as follows: The Earl of Rone hid in Combe Martin's Lady Wood at the top of the village,  and was there pursued by the soldiers, fired upon, and captured. 

He was then placed on the donkey, with his face towards the tail, and led into the village, accompanied by the fool and the hobby-horse.

They made several halts on the way (supposed to be reminiscent of the Stations of the Cross in more pious ages). At each stage the Earl was again fired upon and fell wounded from his donkey, mourned by the fool, but to the delight of the many spectators. The Pack o' Cards Inn continues to be one of those stations.

Finally he was replaced by the fool, and "the affair became a mere matter of buffoonery without special significance". Contributions were levied from the public, and enforced by the "mapper," by which they were seized and held until they had paid (Presland, 1917).

Pay Up or Get the Dirty Besom

Presland (1917) said the fool also carried a besom or broom, which he dipped in the gutter, and with which he sprinkled the recalcitrant. Fred J. Snell in his book North Devon (1906) is in general agreement; adding that a gutter ran along the street, in which the fool dipped the besom or broom.

If anybody declined to donate, they were sprinkled with dirt. If they still did not pay up, they were grabbed by the hobby-horse with his " mapper," and held until the ransom was paid.

The Modern Spring Bank Holiday Show in Combe Martin

The four-day revelry, complete with drummers, a band and dancers, alludes to other trad/folk customs such as Mummers' or guisers' folk plays with a hobby-horse. Traffic is traditionally halted during the proceedings.

In Combe Martin's evolving modern festival, the proceedings are nearly the same as they were in the nineteenth-century. Many of the players wear a string of sea-biscuits. The 'Earl' is a live actor and the gaudy Fool carries a besom or broom.

The colourful hobby horse dances and sways through the streets as the Earl is brought down to Combe Martin harbour. At the finale, the hapless prisoner is paraded and heckled on Combe Martin beach. Summarily 'executed', he is symbolically carted off by the Grenadiers to be thrown into the sea.

 

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