The arden is an area of woodland in the western part of England. It is situated mainly in Warwickshire, with parts in Staffordshire and Worcestershire. It was once heavily wooded and known as the ‘Forest of Arden’.
Located just next to the town of Stratford-upon-Avon, it is named after Shakespeare’s mother, Mary Arden. It was also the name of one of the most popular plays of Shakespeare’s time, As You Like It.
It is renowned for its sandstone, which consists of a large amount of calcium carbonate (lime). This stone was quarried from the area and has been used to build many buildings in the region, including Temple Balsall and Knowle.
A medieval wayside cross, called the Coughton Cross, still sits in the southern boundary of the forest and was reputedly where travellers would pray for safe passage through the arden prior to entering. It is currently owned by the National Trust and can be seen from the A435.
In 1758 a group of noblemen founded what was formerly the ‘Woodmen of Arden’, a club devoted to archery. These ‘woodmen’ claimed to be a modern successor to the medieval Royal Forest court positions of Verderer and Warden. However, there is scant evidence that these positions ever applied in the forest.
The forest remained largely undeveloped during the Roman era, and no Roman roads penetrated it. Instead Icknield Street, Watling Street and Fosse Way went around it and a salt track bounded the south side. The area was sparsely settled, and there are a number of Iron Age hill forts and Roman forts, such as Henley-in-Arden, Coleshill and Ulverlei, that were established in the forest.
As a result, the forest was an important frontier and a source of dispute. Nevertheless, the forest was a source of much local wealth and prestige, as many lords had estates in the area.
During the early medieval period the forest became a major center of commerce and trade, as it was close to the major ports of London and Birmingham. The timber from the forest was used to fuel the fires of medieval market towns such as Henley-in-Arden, which had a population of up to 50,000.
In the sixteenth century the forest was also a centre of resistance to the Protestant Reformation, with Robert Catesby, leader of the Gunpowder Plot in 1605 living in Lapworth. The area also played a significant role in the English Civil War, with key engagements such as the Battle of Camp Hill taking place in the forest.
During the seventeenth century the area became a hotbed of tension between Catholics and the government, as the former resisted Protestantism. The ‘Arden War’ in the seventeenth century saw the arden become the site of numerous bloody battles and civil strife.