Believed to be derived from an Ancient British word ardu, meaning "high land", the area was formerly heavily forested and known as the Forest of Arden. Located in the geographical centre of England, the Forest of Arden, through which no Roman roads were built, was bounded by the Roman roads Icknield Street, Watling Street, Fosse Way, and a prehistoric salt track leading from Droitwich. It encompassed an area corresponding to the north-western half of the traditional county of Warwickshire, stretching from Stratford-on-Avon in the south to Tamworth in the north, and included what are now the large cities of Birmingham and Coventry, in addition to areas that are still largely rural with numerous pockets of woodland. 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" is still present at the south western corner of the forest, at the junction of Icknield Street (now A435) and the salt track. It is located 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 a member.
Shakespeare's play As You Like It is set in the Forest of Arden, however it is an imaginary version incorporating elements from the Ardennes forest in Thomas Lodge's prose romance Rosalynde and the real forest (both as it was then, subjected to deforestation and enclosure, and the romanticized version of his youth).
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 Catholic sympathies, including the family of Shakespeare, whose paternal ancestors were from Temple Balsall.
- Shapiro, James (2006). 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare. Faber and Faber. ISBN 0-571-21481-9.
- Webb, John (8 August 2008). "Forest of Arden". Heart-of-England. Retrieved 3 February 2011.
- Andrew Watkins. "Landowners and their Estates in the Forest of Arden in the Fifteenth Century" (PDF). Ag Hist Rev 45 (1): 18–33.