The Hunting of the Earl of Rone is one of over 500 unique calendar customs that take place at various times of year throughout England. Banned in 1837, for licentiousness and drunken behaviour, the Hunting of the Earl of Rone was revived in 1974. Over the four days of the Spring Bank Holiday weekend, the Grenadiers, Hobby Horse, Fool and villagers hunt through the village for the 'Earl of Rone', finally finding him on the Monday night. He is mounted back-to-front on a donkey and paraded through the village to the sea. He is frequently shot by the grenadiers and falls from the donkey only to be revived by the Hobby-horse and Fool, re-mounted on the donkey, and carried onwards to his fate. At the final shooting on the beach, he is not revived, but thrown into the sea.
Local legend says that he was Hugh O'Neill, Earl of Tyrone, who was forced to flee from Ireland in 1607 and was shipwrecked in the local bay known as Raparee Cove. Hiding in the woods and surviving only on ships' biscuits, he was eventually captured by a party of Grenadiers sent from Barnstaple.
There is no historical evidence that Hugh O'Neill ever landed in North Devon and history tells us that he actually reached Spain and lived out his life there, so why he should become the focus of the custom is a mystery - although there are plenty of theories!
Perhaps the locals were celebrating the defeat of a famous contemporary outlaw by a local landowner, a Chichester, who was the sovereign's Lord Deputy in Ireland at the time. Perhaps the Irish population in the village, who worked the mines, were in sympathy with O'Neill and his attempts to have Ireland ruled by the Irish. Some people think the custom is the last remnant of mediæval May Games, others like to think that it is a pre-Christian, pagan, green man custom that has survived with the O'Neill legend attached to it. The Earl of Rone is seen as a scapegoat by others. People believe what they want to believe whether there is evidence or not - even those who take part have different ideas.
Whatever the history, none of it actually determines what happens these days. What The Hunting of the Earl of Rone definitely is, is Combe Martin celebrating itself! The custom is run by a council of villagers, but any local from Combe Martin, or the surrounding parishes of Berrynarbor, Trentishoe and Kentisbury, is welcome to dress up and join in. Visitors are also welcome to come to watch and enjoy the festivities but, as tradition demands, collections are made throughout the weekend and once costs have been covered, surplus money is donated to good causes in the village.