Castello Lanzun, Mensija
Home of the Grand Commandery of the Castello, Malta G.C.
Built around the middle of the 15th Century, the Castello Lanzun (‘Small Castle of the Lance’) stands at the head of a road from St Julian’s and Spinola Bay, and leads to the higher land plateau forming much of Malta’s geographic central interior. It is situated on the edge of a small village called ‘Mensija’. The road - once just a rugged path - was called ‘The Foreigners’ Way’, because up and along it came the raiding pirates and corsairs, who burnt, razed and pillaged, taking many locals as slaves.
‘Mensija’ means ‘the abandoned place’ and whilst no one knows for certain why it is so called, it was perhaps abandoned by its inhabitants because of the frequent and devastating, plundering attacks by the pirates and corsairs. Near the head of this road, a few feet above the level of the plateau, a communal well is to be found and would always be full of water, even in the dry season - an important consideration for a building in a country such as Malta, where little or no rain falls in the summer period. In this dominating position stands the Castello Lanzun, a characteristic Medieval ‘tower house’. There is little doubt that the tower is Medieval and so precedes most of the Military edifices of Malta (this includes from the time of the Knights of Malta and the rebuilding after the First Great Siege of Malta).
The original tower contained a place for horses and cattle in the large hall on the ground floor; the owner and his retainers lived in the upper chambers, approached by an external staircase, and the flat roof above was reached by a turret stairway. It was a typical Medieval residence of a small armed landowner, part Lord and part farmer - since many in those days lived off the land with the added security of armed protection.
In 1700, the Castello was bought by a rich merchant named Vincento Lanzun to escape the plague ravaging the three cities of Cospicua (Bormula), Senglea (L’ Isola) and Vittorioso (Birgu). The newest part of the original building is a small chamber on the upper floor which was built in 1713 (fortunately for us, the date is engraved over the window). The windows and balcony of this chamber then commanded magnificent views over St George’s, Spinola and St Julian’s Bays and towards the city of Valletta. By the end of 1713, three more rooms were added and an extended courtyard was built. It was almost certainly used by the Knights of St John as a hunting lodge in more peaceful times.
Across the road from the Castello is a cave in which the inhabitants had worshipped in safety from sudden attack by ruthless pirates, and which became an underground grotto church approached by 82 steps descending from the road level. It is dedicated to St.Leonard, Patron Saint of Pirates. On the south side of the square into which the road widens is a statue of the Holy Virgin.
Castello Lanzun is now the International Headquarters of the Military and Hospitaller Order of St Lazarus of Jerusalem and has been fully and lovingly restored. Virtually destroyed during the Second World War, it was initially purchased by the late Lt Col Robert Gayre of Gayre and Nigg, Laird of Lochore. and costly restoration work began at his expense. In 1972, the Laird very generously gave the property to ‘The Commandery of the Castello’ (now known as the ‘Grand Commandery of the Castello’) to act as the official Custodian of the building and additional funds for its further restoration were raised by means of a special Commemorative Medal, which was issued in 1973 on the occasion of the formal opening of the Grand Chancery as the World Headquarters of the Order of St.Lazarus. The east end of the Great Hall, which is in the base of the tower, is now a small Chapel. The Chapel is active and ecumenical, as the Order is a Christian Order not solely associated with any particular religious confession.
The Castello is recognised, not only as one of the important historical buildings of Malta, but also as a centre for heraldry associated with the Order of St Lazarus throughout its history. Its now ‘modern day’ layout consists of the main building with kitchen, cloakroom, ‘keep’ style store room, the tower with the Order's Chapel below, the offices of the world headquarters upstairs which holds the Archives of the Order, and a flag pole with ensign correctly adorning the top of the tower. Castello Lanzun is available to all members of the Order. The large inner courtyard is set and adorned with abundant shrubs, flower beds and bougainvillea. A commemorative plaque in a niche in the courtyard wall marks the official handover from Robert Gayre into the hands of the then Commandery as Custodians for the Order of St Lazarus. A further commerorative plaque records the visit of the Grand Master, His Excellency Don Carlos Gereda de Borbón, Marquis of Almazàn, in May 2013 to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Gayre's gift to the Order. It is in this courtyard that formal and social functions take place throughout the year. The former stables at the opposite end of the courtyard from the Chapel have been converted into a large meeting hall (now called the Knights' Hall). All rooms are decorated with a large number of heraldic adornments, pictures and photos.
The acquisition of Castello Lanzun was the first time that the Order of St Lazarus was able to re-establish a permanent headquarters since it was dispossessed as a result of the French Revolution. It is fitting that it should be located on this Mediterranean island, standing looking eastwards towards the city of Jerusalem.
In 1973, the Castello was formally opened by the late Grand Master, His Excellency Don Francisco de Borbón y de Borbón, as the official Headquarters of the Order of St Lazarus. In 2001, the 48th Grand Master, His Highness Don Francisco de Borbón y Escasany, Duke of Seville, took over the leadership of the Commandery of the Castello and he was succeeded in September 2008 by the present Grand Master, His Excellency Don Carlos Gereda de Borbón, Marquis of Almazán. The Castello is now formally the home of ‘The Grand Commandery of the Castello’ and Don Carlos is its Grand Commander. In recent years the Grand Master has visited the Castello on two occasions. In May 2013 he chaired the meeting of Council in his capacity as our Grand Commander and approved a recommendation for a €10,000 donation to assist a leper colony in Kazakhstan.