He was the son of John Fitzalan, Baron Maltravers, and Elizabeth le Despenser, and became Baron Maltravers on his father's death in 1391. In 1415 his cousin Thomas Fitzalan, 12th Earl of Arundel died, leaving John as his closest male heir. Arundel had been entailed to heirs male, and so the next year John was summoned to parliament as Earl of Arundel.
However the inheritance was challenged by Thomas Mowbray, 1st Duke of Norfolk, who was married to the late earl's eldest sister. The dispute was not settled during their lifetimes, and John was subsequently summoned to Parliament as Baron Maltravers, not Earl of Arundel.
He married Eleanor Berkeley, and was succeeded by his son John Fitzalan, 14th Earl of Arundel, who eventually made good the claim to the earldom.