Wednesday, 8 May 2013

The History of Greenwich's Parakeets

Visitors to Greenwich Park will have noticed the flocks of cheerful green parakeets chirruping around amongst the treetops.  These parakeets have been a feature of the park for centuries and are a part of Greenwich ’s history that links its rural heritage to the royal ancestry of the area.

King Henry VIII, (1491-1547), best known for his table manners, his six wives, and as father of the more prominent Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603), was an ardent collector of wildlife.  Recent literature (Beardsley, 2009) signals the development of a growing body of scholarship on his contribution to early animal conservation, and in particular his love of rare and exotic birds. 

The parakeets were first brought to Greenwich Park as part of a gift made by explorer Vasco da Gama (c. 1469-1524) to Henry VIII under the terms of a treaty drawn up with Portugal as part of attempts to quell unrest between Britain and Spain.  Henry believed that familiarity with wildlife was an important part of cultural life, and something that could bring enlightenment to the everyday lives of Greenwich people. 

Henry commissioned the design and construction of a bird house under the supervision of Thomas Wolsey, Archbishop of York (c. 1471-1530).  This was an elaborate construction decorated by reliefs of exotic birds designed by Italian craftsman Giovanni da Maiano.  He regularly opened the bird house for the enjoyment of local tradesmen and artisans, believing that an understanding and appreciation of rare and unusual creatures would enhance their creativity and productiveness.

Following Henry’s death the bird house was allowed to fall into disrepair and was eventually removed as an austerity measure by Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658).  One theory of why the parakeets survived is that a kindly local found time to feed the birds regularly.  Larger varieties of bird, including the Rosebreasted Cockatoo of which Henry was particularly proud, sadly died out as they were unable to survive the cold winters.

Beardsley, E (2009) ‘Wildlife Conservation, its antecedents – an examination of the role of the British Monarchy in the early development of wildlife protection policy’.  International Journal of Natural Heritage, Vol 5 Issue 6 pp 323-358  

Do the parakeets visit your garden?  Post your comments here.

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