In my novel A Moon Garden, there were two lovers who could not marry legally in England in 1785. This was because of the Marriage Act, passed by Parliament in 1753. For a marriage to be legally binding, the ceremony had to be conducted by a minister in a church or chapel of the Church of England. Jews and Quakers were exempt from this restriction, but Anglicans and Catholics were not. The law also set the age of consent at 21. The Act remained in effect until 1836.
It did not apply in Scotland, however. Under Scottish law, couples could wed on the spot in front of two witnesses. They only needed to declare that they were both free to marry. As a result, thousands of English couples eloped to Gretna Green, which was the village they reached as soon as they crossed the border from England into Scotland. The first building they saw was the blacksmith’s shop. The blacksmith developed a lucrative side business presiding over civil marriage ceremonies, and became known as the Anvil Priest.
The couple in A Moon Garden travelled to Gretna Green for their wedding. The blacksmith conducted a brief handfasting ceremony, then declared, “‘You have tied the knot. I pronounce you husband and wife.’” With that, the blacksmith raised a metal hammer and lowered it with great force against the anvil, producing a loud ringing sound.”
I was happy to discover a series of five narrative paintings by British historical genre painter John Arthur Lomax, depicting the anvil wedding of an anxious couple at Gretna Green. It looks just how I had envisioned it!
After abandoning Philadelphia to the Americans in 1778, the British shifted their focus to the South. By the middle of May 1780, they had secured a decisive victory in Charlestown, South Carolina, with the surrender of the Continental Army and Patriot militias under the command of Major General Benjamin Lincoln. Hundreds of captured colonial soldiers were held in prison hulks in the harbor.
In my debut historical novel, A Moon Garden, Joseph Buckleigh is an officer with the 33rd Regiment of Foot. At the Royal Army field headquarters just north of Charlestown, he is unexpectedly reunited with his friend, Aaron Mendes, a colonial doctor who has recently arrived to treat the sick and wounded prisoners.
Aaron’s face lit up when he saw Joseph, and he suspected his expression mirrored his friend’s. The two men embraced.
“This is unexpected, Aaron,” said Joseph. “Colonel Eades only told me a few moments ago that you are working at Greenwood. When did you arrive?”
“Just over one week ago.”
“It is commendable of you to serve the Patriots at a British facility. We have too few doctors even to attend our own soldiers, so I am certain the care given to the captured wounded is far from adequate.”
“I will refrain from commenting, Joseph. Suffice it to say that I am kept busy.”
The men went outside. Colonel Eades had already requested Joseph’s horse be made ready, and it was tied to a post next to Aaron’s bay mare. It was a cool morning on a clear day, perfect for riding.
“Charlestown Harbor is not far,” said Joseph. “When we get to the ship, you cannot board without someone to provide protection. Perhaps we may prevail upon a prison guard to accompany you, for you must realize I cannot. If there were a way to persuade you to abandon this undertaking, I would try.”
“It is not for myself that I must do this.”
Joseph felt the wind go out of himself, as though he had taken a blow to the solar plexus. Grace was the unspoken, unseen presence. It was for Grace that Aaron would visit hell to look in on the man who had seduced his sister and then bound her to himself with an eternal vow. It was for Grace that Aaron and Joseph had to assess a value to the life of a man who had abused and encumbered a woman that they each loved in their own way. Joseph untangled the reins of the chestnut Marsh Tacky stallion, put his boot in the stirrup, and mounted. “Then ride,” he said, as he took off at a gallop, not glancing back to see if Aaron had followed.
The East Webburn River flows through the ancient, picturesque village of Widecombe-in-the-Moor, past the Rugglestone Inn, and through the vast land holdings of the fictional family of Joseph Buckleigh, the hero of the historical novel A Moon Garden, by Roxane Gilbert. When his tour of duty in the American War for Independence comes to an end, Joseph returns to his ancestral home in Widecombe-in-the-Moor, to heal and resume his life.
Joseph’s eyes sparkled as he smiled. “I will tell you something right now that is as sincere as anything you will hear today. I am going to strip off all of my clothes and plunge my body into that very cold stream over there on the other side of the hedge. There is nothing I would like better than for my wife to get some clean clothes from my brother, and a sheet in which I may wrap myself when I come out of the water. Now, if you can present these to me in five minutes, I would be most appreciative.” With that, Joseph pulled off his shirt, dropped it on the ground, then ran in the direction of the creek.
It was not Grace who stood on the bank when Joseph finished bathing. He laughed when he saw Russell Jayne, now a captain with the Royal Army, sitting on a moss-covered rock. Russell threw him the sheet. “Good Lord, Buckleigh. What I must endure for King and country.”
Widecombe-in-the-Moor in Devon, England, is a village of fewer than 200 households in the middle of Dartmoor, which has been protected by National Park status since 1951. Many of the hedgerows and stone walls that divide the landscape date back hundreds of years. The walls have become natural rock gardens, covered with stonecrop, navelwort, maiden-hair ferns, and lichens.
“The edge of the gentle downward slope was anchored at its base by a giant yew tree. From there the lane gradually rose again for about 30 yards. Another low, decaying stone wall adjoined a weathered wooden fence, blocking the entrance to the courtyard of a two-story stone cottage set back against rolling green hills. A decrepit stone barn stood to the east, and an overgrown garden was to the west. Aaron dismounted his horse and opened the wide, slatted gate. Its large rusted hinges were generously greased. Despite a high-pitched scraping sound, it swung open with ease.”
Despite the superior numbers of the American Patriot forces, they were resoundingly defeated by the British in the Battle of Camden in South Carolina on August 16, 1780. It was a bloody battle, with both sides suffering many killed and wounded. The Royal Army’s 33rd Regiment of Foot, in the front lines of the fighting, was particularly devastated.
“Late that night, Joseph was sitting on a patchwork quilt blanket in the garden next to the meadow behind the great house that served as Army headquarters and the Camden residence of General Cornwallis and his officers. The moon was full, and he stared out at the silhouettes of the towering pine trees beyond the redoubt, listening to the serenade of bullfrogs, as he tipped a small silver flask to his lips and felt the smooth burn of the Scotch whiskey easing down his throat. He was barefoot, in his shirt sleeves. His unbound hair, hanging loose around his collar, was tousled by a soft summer breeze.
“There was a muted click as someone opened the gate. Joseph looked over his shoulder and was surprised to see two tall men walking towards him. At 20 yards, they were too far away in the darkness for him to determine who they were. He closed his eyes for a moment and sighed, then pushed the ground with his fist and stood up.
“‘As you were, Major Buckleigh,’ said a familiar voice. It was Colonel Eades. The larger man with him was General Cornwallis. ‘As you were.’”
It is July 4, 1778. The British Army’s 33rd Regiment of Foot has returned to the New York colony, after sustaining heavy losses in the horrific Battle of Monmouth.
“It was a warm day with a mild breeze in Manhattan. Joseph sat under a tree in the meadow at the end of Broadway, cleaning his musket. As Colonel Eades had foreseen, now that Joseph was back in New York, he was finding time to rest. He reflected on the tough battles he had been through with his regiment. When they left England and arrived in the colonies in 1776, they numbered nearly 500. In two years, the 33rd had lost close to a quarter of its men.
“… Joseph closed his eyes and envisioned the raven-haired beauty with the pale complexion, clear green eyes, and bright smile. The two of them were together, laughing, walking across the ancient rough-granite footbridge over the rushing River Dart, then running up a hill to stroll hand-in-hand on the vast, misty moor.”
The construction of Rougemont Castle was begun in 1068, sometime after William the Conqueror laid siege to the city of Exeter in Devon, England. The walls that remain today are surrounded on three sides by public gardens. In the year 1785, the broad walk through those gardens would have been lined with towering elm trees. On my visit to Rougemont Garden a couple of years ago, the elm trees were gone, but it was still easy to envision the interrupted romantic encounter that occurs at this place in my debut novel, A Moon Garden.
Having been built in the 14th century, the Church of St. Pancras in Widecombe-in-the-Moor in Devon, England, was already ancient in 1785, when the Buckleigh family went there to worship in the historical novel A Moon Garden. Although the church has changed over the passing decades, I saw some of the original medieval carved bosses and impressive granite stonework when I visited in 2017, in the early stages of researching and writing my book.
Yesterday I called Staples and said, “This is Roxane Gilbert. I am calling to see if my business cards are ready to pick up.” The woman at the other end of the phone said, “Yes! And you just published a book! I’m so excited!!” When I got home, there was a package waiting for me. It was a good day; a bit surreal.