Villa Guardamangia – Everything you didn’t know
Oh yes, this is another very special place. I’m sure if I asked what is this building know for the majority of you will say ‘The Queen lived there’! This is true, for most of us, including me, this town house was the place where Princess Elizabeth II lived during her stay in Malta.
There is more to this story. The building is important for the building itself and the way it was constructed. Also other important and prominent people lived here, but got quite naturally shadowed by the Queen.
I was very lucky to be given the chance to visit Villa Guardamangia before the major reconstruction works start. No other open days are planned. The main focus is to bring this villa to its former glory.
The full conservation and restoration works are planned for the next five years. After that we will be able to walk in and feel like the Queen never left. But let me not get ahead of myself and let’s start from the very beginning.
Are you ready to walk in and start the tour? Yes? Great! In that case let me welcome you inside Villa Guardamangia, a unique villa situated in Pieta, very close to the St. Luke’s Hospital.
It doesn’t look that special from the outside, but it has a certain charm. Let’s explore the interiors and talk about the history of the actual building.
History of the building
Why is this building important you may ask. To fully understand we need to back to the Great Siege of Malta, 1565. People would take shelter behind the fortifications. Those who could afford it, knights and other rich persons, would start venturing out of the fortifications. The first one was the Grandmaster himself, who built the Verdala Palace, but still a fortified building.
Villa Guardamangia was one of the first, if not the first building to be constructed in this area. Without any fortifications. And it was built probably around the year 1750. The entire corner where this villa stands was owned by a Spanish knight who then sold it to three Maltese gentlemen in 1810: Mr. Micallef, Mr. Sant and Mr. Zammit. In 1814 they divided the space in three parts and drew lots and everyone took one portion. Villa Guardamangia covers the area of 1560 square metres and its garden around 930 square metres.
Did you know that Villa Guardamangia was also equipped with central heating? This was back to 1940s! Something unheard of on this island in 2022. Apparently Maltese never really required it, but Lord Mountbatten wanted it. He is my man! 🙂
Here you can see the boiler that was heating up the central heating. The iron railings are the original ones from the elevated walkway and will be restored and reused.
Who lived here?
Most probably what we see today was built in the second half of the 19th century. Villa Guardamangia was mostly owned by important Maltese families. In the first half of the 20th century it was owned by Bartolo family. Augustus Bartolo was Maltese politician, journalist and judge. He owned the Malta Chronicle, a local newspaper with a very pro-British approach. He left the villa as an inheritance to his nephews.
In 1948 the villa was sold to Joseph Schembri. He was a also a prominent politician as well as one of the most important businessmen of the time. Mr. Schembri was also a member of parliament. At that time, it is believed that the property was already in a bad state and needed a refurbishment. Mr. Schembri was at that time agreeing with Lord Mountbatten to rent the place.
The works were done in a way to accommodate Lord Mountbatten who had a very important post at the Royal Navy. Lord Mountbatten and his wife moved in to the building in December 1948.
Queen Elizabeth II.
Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip got married in 1947. Prince Philip also had a naval career, which he had to stop due to king’s bad health. In 1949 the king’s health improved and prince Philip was able to join the Royal Navy again and he was posted to Malta.
The Duke was made second-in-command of HMS Chequers, leader of the first destroyer flotilla of the Mediterranean Fleet based in Malta in 1949. And the natural thing to do, was to live with uncle Louis – Lord Mountbatten. Elizabeth flew out to be with him. “It was the only place that she was able to live the life of a naval officer’s wife, just like all the other wives.”
When Queen Elizabeth II. and Prince Philip moved in Prince Charles was already born. Prince Philip stayed in Malta for 2 years while her majesty was going back and forth between Malta and the UK. She resided in Malta for about 8 months out of those 2 years. In the meantime she gave birth to Princess Anne.
For a long time I thought that The Queen actually owned the house. Which wasn’t the case. Her Majesty and Prince Philip didn’t choose to live here for any special reason, but convenience. Lord Mountbatten was Philip’s maternal uncle and he used to reside in this very building.
Queen Elizabeth II. and Prince Philip always refer to their time in Malta in a very nostalgic matter. Most probably because this was the only time when they could live a ‘normal’ family life. Or at least as normal as it could get for a royal family with security guards etc.
Queen Elizabeth II. could handle money for the first time in Malta and go shopping, go to the hairdresser, talk to the locals or even drive around the island. Prince Philip practiced polo at Marsa, they would go out for picnics or on a boat ride around the islands.
In 1951 the King’s heath, George VI, worsened and Prince Philip’s career was cut short once again and had to return back to England. His uncle, Lord Mountbatten, continued living here until 1954 when he had to move to his official residence in Valletta.
Shortly afterwards the Schembri returned back to Villa Guardamangia as their private residence. The last descendant remained living here until 2018. However the lady unfortunately didn’t have the interest to keep up with the building. She basically occupied a couple of rooms until she passed away.
The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh have returned to Malta several times since then but never visited Villa Guardamangia.
The building was purchased in 2020 by the government and entrusted to Heritage Malta. The conservation and reconstruction works are already taking place.
The main rehabilitation works are planned to start by the end of the year 2022 and are planned to last for the next 5 years and cost around €10mil to bring the villa back to its former glory. Conservators are currently working on the 1st floor uncovering the original wall paintings.
Tour of Villa Guardamangia
Now I’m going to take you around this mid-18th century villa room by room. I’ll also explain what they were used for when different families resided here.
This room served as a music room as well as an office.
Now we walked into the private study of Mr. Schembri. He was a member of the Parliament so he saw people every day so it was conveniently situated right next to the main entrance.
When Lord Mountbatten was here this was a reception room and when they had people over it would be used to serve drinks here before dinner.
This was the dining room for the Schembri family as well as the royal family.
The staircase on the left was the secondary set of stairs to access the bedrooms. The staircase on the right leads to the war shelter. It will be accessible and part of the experience once the villa is rehabilitated.
The dining room was relatively big and had plenty of natural light.
This was the kitchen. Quite a small one, but it was very busy. At one point there were 17 members of staff.
This was the extension of the kitchen. Behind it is an extension of the servants’ quarters, but it’s in a very bad state, so for safety reasons we didn’t enter.
Now it’s time to have a look outside and explore the garden before moving to the 1st floor.
Romantic ionic portico. This porch had an extension in the form of elevated walkway. Unfortunately most of it has collapsed. Luckily for us, the plan is to completely reconstruct it, so we can experience what the royal couple used to love so much.
Most of the walkway has collapsed, but it will be completely rebuilt. It finished overlooking a fountain with a staircase on the right. The date on staircase most likely commemorates the completion date – 21st July 1926.
Now let’s go upstairs and see what this elevated walkway looked from above. None of the residents of Villa Guardamangia could enjoy any sea views from this walkway, but it must have been still very charming.
The first room that we will visit on the 1st floor is the biggest room from them all. It was the representative room. The most expensive paintings and other objects would be displayed in this room. It was used for important meetings and small receptions.
As you can see the original wall paintings are covered with another layer of paint, which are currently being uncovered by Heritage Malta conservators.
Welcome to Princess Elizabeth’s living quarters which consists of the bedroom, study room, walk-in wardrobe and a small bathroom.
I don’t know how about you, but I kind of expected the Princess’ bathroom to be much larger!
This is the porch over the main door/entrance.
This used to be a private chapel of the Schembri family, but when the Royal family was here it was the office of the lady-in-waiting (a lady who attends a queen or a princess).
This was the bedroom of Prince Philip. He also had his walk-in wardrobe and a bathroom.
This bathroom was most probably reserved for the staff.
This room (above), which served as a bedroom to the last resident. It was made smaller by partitioning to make it easier to heat it up. You can still see the frame on the walls.
The tour wouldn’t be complete without visiting the roof, which offered gorgeous sea views. We could not visit that part of the roof to take pictures of the harbor views due to safety. However here is the view of the entire enclosed garden and the remains of the elevated walkway.
The plan is to restore the building entirely. The ultimate goal is to open up the property to the public, with the ground floor exploring relations between Malta and the royal family through the ages. On the first floor, a ‘historic house approach’ will be used, with a reconstruction of how it looked in the 1950s when the royal couple lived there. Can’t wait for 2027 and the grand opening! 🙂
Guided tour with Kenneth Gambin, Chief Operations Officer at Heritage Malta