The Forest of Arden
The arden is an area of the British countryside situated in Warwickshire and Staffordshire. Its name is thought to be derived from a Brythonic word ardu meaning “high” or “highland”, referring to the fact that it was once heavily wooded. The arden is situated immediately adjacent to Stratford-upon-Avon, the town where Shakespeare was born and raised.
The Forest of Arden was a large area of densely forested land that once covered the region in southern Warwickshire, England. It was the largest woodland in all of England at its height in the medieval era, and it did not appear to be subject to forest law at the time. Instead, a series of Roman roads such as Icknield Street, Watling Street and Fosse Way circled the forest, while a prehistoric salt track bound the south side.
During the early medieval period, the arden was also an important centre of the Knights Templar, and they owned a preceptory at Temple Balsall in the heart of the forest. The Templars are sometimes linked to the Shakespearean family and a number of people from the arden were involved in the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, including Robert Catesby, a native of Lapworth, a village in Arden, who was responsible for many key engagements during the English Civil War of 1642–1651 (see below).
At the time of the Tudor era, the arden was a major trading centre with a significant presence of merchants and tradespeople. The medieval hamlet of Henley-in-Arden was the most important centre, and there were several other smaller towns such as Coleshill, Knowle and Ulverlei in the arden.
From the eleventh century onwards, a wave of settlement took place in the arden as a result of peasant land hunger and seignorial encouragement by local lords. These lords often offered free burgage tenure to villagers and their families, which meant that they paid no rent to the local Lord of the Manor or his heirs.
In the sixteenth century, a series of royal forests were established in the arden and on adjacent woodland, such as Sutton Park and Feckenham Forest. However, this was not due to the area being subject to forest law, but rather to the fact that it was a frontier area. This may be in part because the forest was so dense that it was difficult to navigate, and wolves and bears were present.
The forest is now a protected area under the European Union’s Natura 2000 network and the United Kingdom’s Countryside Commission has considered creating a new national forest in the arden. In the meantime, tourism supports some of the local economy as visitors come to visit historic sites and rural villages in the arden.