When Jane Dudley, Duchess of Northumberland thanked her recently acquired friend, the Duchess of Alba, in her will, she wrote: “I give to the duchess of Alva my green parrot; I have nothing worthy for her else”.
A green parrot: how exotic a bird was this in the England of 1555? Did it originate from the New World? Possibly, but it is much more likely that any green parrot in the possession of Jane Dudley would have been one of the luxury pets known in Europe since antiquity. Parrots were first imported by the armies of Alexander the Great, who brought them from India.
Green parrots were well-known in medieval Europe, as depictions in art of the 15th century show; they usually carried a symbolical meaning. The parrot, of course, was a “speaking animal”, and was not so much seen as “parroting” human words than pointing to the Word of God and the Bible. Additionally, parrots were seen as symbols of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, which explains why a picture like Jan van Eyck’s Virgin and Child with Canon van der Paele (1434-36) (detail above) features a green parrot in a central position.
Martin Schongauer’s engraving Virgin and Child with a Parrot (c.1480-83) combines the two symbolic meanings by having Mary turning the pages of the book, the Bible, while her son Jesus is holding a parrot, who in turn is looking at the Bible.
The religious climate of 1555 was very different from that of the 15th century and Jane Dudley was almost certainly of evangelical outlook herself and it can only be guessed whether she would have been aware of any traditional meanings associated with parrots. These birds were not common and certainly carried an air of the exotic about them, which made them a suitable present (or bequest) as they were. Yet in practice old traditions die hard, and both duchesses may still have had some understanding of the old beliefs. Jane Dudley was a shrewd lady, a mother who, knowing that it would please the queen, did not hesitate to ask the government to allow her sons to hear mass while in captivity. Perhaps she hoped an allusion to the Virgin Mary would please a Spanish Catholic who had helped to get her sons out of prison.
Adams, Simon (2002): Leicester and the Court: Essays in Elizabethan Politics. Manchester University Press.
Adams, Simon (2008): ‟Dudley, Robert, earl of Leicester (1532/3–1588)“. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Online edition.
Borchert, Till-Holger (2010): Van Eyck bis Dürer: Altniederländische Meister und die Malerei in Mitteleuropa. Belser.