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Elizabeth was truly great

Owen Bonnici – (Minister for the National Heritage, the Arts, and the Local Government.)

Once an American journalist, in the immediate post-Soviet era, asked Mikhail Gorbachev how in the latter’s own view history will judge him.

Mr Gorbachev gave a witty reply. “You see,” he had said, “history is a capricious lady. I hope she will judge me fairly.”

Indeed history is very capricious. A lot of factors come in when passing judgment on a public persona and the effect he or she might have had on our lives. Dom Mintoff, when asked a similar question, answered as follows: “It depends. It depends on who writes the history book.”

Therefore there seems to be a standard consciousness that history can be a tricky one. With regards to Elizabeth II, history has no other option, history cannot play any tricks, cannot wriggle in some unexpected direction. With regards to Elizabeth II, history must say things as they truly are: that Elizabeth was one of the greatest persons who have ever lived during the 20th and part of the 21st century.

One of the best living wordsmiths of the English language, former Prime Minister Boris Johnson, gave a splendid speech in Parliament in memory of Queen Elizabeth II. In my view he encapsulated the sentiment and feelings of the entire world when he described Elizabeth as being the Great. And the Great she truly was.

Usually the title “the Great” is afforded to leaders and Monarchs in whose time famous battles are won or vast new lands are annexed to the jurisdiction. Alexander the Great was deemed to be great for this precise purpose, as were various Roman Emperors and other world leaders who, as the history books tell us, conquered this and that territory.

Elizabeth was great precisely for the opposite reason. Throughout her lifetime of long service, which was in fact the longest service ever by a reigning Monarch in British history, she stood out as a symbol of calm, of unity, of peace and perhaps more importantly, common sense. As Prime Ministers came and went – from Churchill to Johnson and then Truss – Queen Elizabeth provided genuine and honest service to the people of the United Kingdom, to the Commonwealth and the other countries – including independent Malta for a whole generation – in which she was or still is the Head of State and this while the British Empire was gradually but rapidly scaling itself down.

I am writing this article while I am accompanying President George W. Vella, a man I profoundly respect and admire, on an official visit in Estonia. The sentiment throughout the political class and the people in the street alike in Estonia is one of deep uncertainty and security concern following their neighbouring country Russia’s senseless and irresponsible decision to invade Ukraine.

When one keeps in mind how many leaders over the years took wrong turns and bad decisions which affected the lives and livelihoods of thousands of people, such as Putin took when he violated the territorial integrity of Ukraine, public personas such as Elizabeth and the way she conducted her public life stand out firmly as glimmers of hope and optimism.

I had the privilege to meet Queen Elizabeth and present King Charles III more than once, as well as Prince William. In all my meetings, the Royal family always struck me as being kind and gentle, with its members being terribly focused on doing their job well and with passion. King Charles III in particular, during his long period as Prince of Wales, set up the Prince’s Trust with which we worked closely during my very short stint as Education Minister, and so I know first hand the fantastic work which is being done by these charities.

But back to Queen Elizabeth. Of course, Malta was very much close to her heart and the memories of her time here with her husband Philip before everything started were pleasant and very beautiful. I have been asked a lot of questions about what we are going to do about the Villa which was the house of the then Princess for two years in the immediate post-war period.

The Villa, Villa Guardamangia, is currently the island's focal point as we all mourn the passing of Queen Elizabeth II. Wreaths were affixed to Villa Guardamangia's front entrance above a black-and-white image of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip at the time and respects were paid by the people at large.

The story is as follows: while serving in Malta, Prince Philip was an officer of the Royal Navy, a first lieutenant on HMS Chequers and captain of HMS Magpie, Prince Philip was an officer of the Royal Navy. Princess Elizabeth, so very fond of her husband, was known to frequently wave him goodbye from the Harbour Fire Command station at Fort St Elmo.

Villa Guardamangia was home to so many people over the years, but its most famous residents remain Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip. They were married in 1947 and lived at the villa intermittently between 1949 and 1951. In fact, the Villa is best known for having served as the only permanent residence outside the United Kingdom which Queen Elizabeth II ever had.

Historians might correct me if I got this wrong, but I believe that this also means that Villa Guardamangia is the only known place outside Great Britain where an heir to the throne of the United Kingdom has resided.

For sure this is the only place the Queen has described as ‘home’ since here she could lead a ‘normal’ life without the burden of official duties. Since then, the royal couple has always referred to their stay in Malta with nostalgia.

Unfortunately Villa Guardamangia, which until 2019 was privately owned, was left in cruel abandon and in a sad state of disrepair. It was purchased by the Government of Malta after negotiations with the owners during my first tenure as Culture Minister and formally entrusted to Heritage Malta in June 2020.

We are intent on doing justice to this gem of a dwelling – reviving it to its former splendour not only to enrich Malta’s cultural heritage but in homage to Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip’s memory.

Villa Guardamangia is a classic example of an 18th-century Maltese country summer house, one of the first to be built in this harbour area. Until 1810 the building and surrounding land were owned by the Spanish cleric Carlo Oleades, who then sold it to Fra Vincenzo Carbone, a member of the Order of St John.

Carbone eventually sold it to three Maltese gentlemen who divided the property between themselves in 1814. In dire need of restoration, Lord Louis Mountbatten rented and moved into the property in December 1948, following extensive works.

In 1949 it was bought by Joseph Schembri, one of the island’s foremost businessmen and a member of parliament with the Malta Labour Party. It remained within the Schembri family until it was sold as I have just explained.

Immediately, upon the building being entrused to Heritage Malta, emergency interventions were made to stop the building from collapsing. Immediately, preparations and plans were conducted to design a project to be submitted for EU financing under the new program. As we speak, we are documenting the villa’s indoor and outdoor conditions using 3D mapping. This will help conservators restore dilapidated areas and eventually assist researchers in carrying out comparative studies.

Once restored, upon the obtainment of EU funding, the villa’s display will focus on the relations between Malta and Great Britain through the ages while creating a historic house approach on the first floor, reconstructing it as it was during Princess Elizabeth’s residence in the mid-20th century.

The idea is to have visitor amenities on the ground floor, providing a general context of the relations between Malta and Great Britain through the ages and explaining why the royal couple came to Malta.

In contrast, the first floor will focus on a historic house approach, reconstructing it as it was during Princess Elizabeth’s residence in the mid-20th century. It will be another museum/site managed by Heritage Malta and shall serve as an attraction to locals and tourists.

Achitecturally Villa Guardamangia is a beautiful building in itself. Spread on some 1,500 square metres and boasting 18 rooms, a large garden and stables, Villa Guardamangia is a classic example of an 18th-century summer house.

It is one of several similar buildings which may be considered to mark a slow shift in Maltese culture - an increase in confidence to venture out of Valletta’s fortified walls following the siege of 1565 and the non-materialisation of a second siege.

As the world is mourning the passing away of a formidable Head of State, we find solace in the beautiful memories that Elizabeth the Great has left not only to the Maltese people, but also to the world at large.


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