Forest of Arden

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The Forest of Arden (1888 – 1897, Albert Pinkham Ryder)

The Forest of Arden is a once-extensive forest land spread across much of southern Warwickshire and perhaps beyond. It was traditionally regarded as stretching from the River Avon to the River Tame.

This is a land celebrated in literature and which has inspired the poetic imagination for centuries. Michael Drayton wrote in Poly-Albion (in the sixteenth century) that the Forest of Arden once stretched from the Severn to the Trent.


The Mock Marriage of Orlando and Rosalind (Walter Howell Deverell)

The Forest of Arden has fired the poetic imagination. Michael Drayton, a Warwickshire man and a friend of Shakespeare's, wrote:

Where nightingales in Arden sit and sing
Amongst the dainty dew-impearled flowers.[1]

The forest is most famed though from Shakespeare's As You Like It, much of which takes place in "the Forest of Arden", and notwithstanding that the Bard set his play in France and clearly meant the forests of the Ardenne, it is his native Warwickshire forest which comes alive in the play.

They say he is already in the forest of Arden, and a many merry men with him; and there they live like the old Robin Hood of England: they say many young gentlemen flock to him every day, and fleet the time carelessly, as they did in the golden world.

There "the golden world" is played out:

Under the greenwood tree
Who loves to lie with me,
And trurn his merry note
Unto the sweet bird's throat;
Come hither.

Even so, in Shakespeare's day the woods had been severely thinned and enclosed, but as a romanticized version of his youth it is a fine picture of a dream.[2]


The origin of the name "Arden" is unknown. One frequent etymology has it from an Ancient British word ardu, meaning "high land", and perhaps the romantic imagination (which is not lacking hereabouts) may think of it as yr Ardd, meaning "the Garden". An Old English origin is quite possible too, though none has been strongly proposed.

The area was formerly heavily forested, hence the Forest of Arden. Here in the centre of the land, no Roman roads were driven through this woodland, which lay between the lines of the Roman roads, which may themselves mark older ways, Icknield Street, Watling Street and Fosse Way, and a prehistoric salt track leading from Droitwich.[3] The forest encompassed an area corresponding to the north-western half of the Warwickshire, stretching from Stratford-on-Avon in the south to Tamworth in the north, and in its original form it included the places one which now stand the county's greatest cities, Birmingham and Coventry. Much of Arden today remains rural with numerous pockets of woodland bearing witness to an ancient forest.

The most important and largest settlement in the forest was Henley-in-Arden, the site of an Iron Age hillfort.

An ancient mark stone known as "Coughton Cross" stands at the south-western corner of the forest, at the junction of Icknield Street (now A435) and the salt track. It is at the southern end of the frontage of Coughton Court and is owned by the National Trust. According to local tradition, travellers prayed here for safe passage through the forest.

Thorkell of Arden, a descendant of the ruling family of Mercia, was one of the few major English landowners who retained extensive properties after the Norman conquest, and his descendants, the Arden family, remained prominent in the area for centuries. Mary Arden, mother of William Shakespeare, was of this family.[4]

From around 1162, until the suppression of the order in 1312, the Knights Templar owned a preceptory at Temple Balsall in the middle of the Forest of Arden. The property then passed to the Knights Hospitaller, who held it until the Reformation in the 16th century.

Robert Catesby, leader of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, was a native of Lapworth, a village in Arden. It is believed that many local families had resisted the Reformation and retained Romanist sympathies, including the family of Shakespeare, whose paternal ancestors were from Temple Balsall.

Villages in the area bearing a record of the name include Hampton-in-Arden, Henley-in-Arden, and Tanworth-in-Arden.

Outside links



  1. Michael Drayton; Sonnet 53
  2. Shapiro 2005, pp. 270–4.
  3. Webb 2008.
  4. Shapiro 2005, pp. 276–7.