The arden (/rdn/) is a large area of thickly forested land situated near the geographical centre of England. It is largely located in Warwickshire, with parts in Staffordshire and Worcestershire.
The forest was once the largest and most extensive in England, but by the medieval era it had become deforested. It was no longer protected by forest law, but it was still a frontier, and the area was home to several Iron Age hill forts, Roman forts and early Anglo-Saxon settlements.
A distinctive sandstone is quarried in the area, called ‘Arden Sandstone’, which is characteristic of the Triassic period and features in many local buildings. This sandstone contains calcium carbonate (‘lime’) that results from the shells of organisms living in the water which deposited the sandstone. It can be used in building construction but is often carved out as ornamentation.
Villages in the Forest of Arden include Henley-in-Arden, Tanworth-in-Arden and Hampton-in-Arden. The villages of Balsall, Knowle and Temple Balsall also feature the stone.
Tourism is a significant contributor to the economy of the forest. The area has an abundance of historic sites, and is a popular tourist destination for those who enjoy walking through the forests.
Arden was the location of many key engagements in the English Civil War, such as the Battle of Camp Hill. It was also the birthplace of William Shakespeare, and is believed to be the hometown of Robert Catesby, leader of the Gunpowder Plot in 1605.
The Forest of Arden was the site of an early Knights Templar preceptory at Temple Balsall. It was held by the order from 1162 until it was suppressed in 1312.
A medieval era wayside cross, known as the ‘Coughton Cross’, sits at the southern boundary of the forest and was a place where travellers would pray for safe passage through the forest before entering.
In the fifteenth century there was a wave of settlement in the Forest of Arden as peasant ‘land hunger’ and seignorial encouragement encouraged the establishment of new lordships in the area. The first manors to be settled were those of Henley-in-Arden, Coleshill and Ulverlei in the southern part of the forest.
As well as being an important agricultural region, the Forest of Arden was home to a large number of medieval and later reformed castles, some of which are now ruined. The Castle of Henley-in-Arden is the largest castle in the area, and it was one of the most powerful fortifications in Britain during the Middle Ages.
During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Forest of Arden was subject to courtly intrigue and espionage. The area was a stronghold of a variety of spies, including the Black Prince and his followers.