Edward Agius was no ordinary man. Although he was not an official diplomat, he played an important role in his unofficial capacity, shuttling between England and the continent at the turn of the century. He spoke an impressive 19 languages.

Josephine Burns Debono says it was he who apparently coined the phrase entente cordiale over a brandy with the French president of the time. She is clearly proud of her grandfather but the story she told would give him an even more important role in history – that of helping to convert the British king, Edward VII, to Roman Catholicism.

Josephine’s story is regarded with understandable scepticism, even by her own family, but she is still remarkably sprightly for her age and her memory has certainly not been affected by time. This is the story she told me.

Before one of Edward’s frequent trips to France in the 1860s, the weather had been too rough to permit the sea passage across the British Channel and he found shelter for the night at a quiet inn in Dover.

There was only one other person in the restaurant at the time, a young man. Picking up his cognac, he wondered over and asked whether the man would mind if they shared what was left of the evening together.

The man said his name was Baron Renfrew. Agius raised his eyebrow, although only slightly. Renfrew was the name used by the Prince of Wales, Albert Edward, when he wanted to travel incognito. The prince, who would eventually become Edward VII, had just got engaged to Princess Alexandra and had been banished to Paris by his mother, Queen Victoria. He said it was to learn French but he made it clear that he was well aware that his mother wanted him out of her sight.

The two men immediately hit it off and the prince spent some time with him in Paris.

A year later, Prince Albert married Princess Alexandra, but he never really gave up his bachelor life, having one affair after another, many of them well publicised.

Once on the throne, one of the king’s frequent trips overseas took him to Italy. One of the women in the party suggested that they dine at a Dominican monastery near Florence, which had been recommended for its excellent food.

The king was captivated by the way of life and the calm, serene atmosphere. The seed was sown. The king wanted to know more about Roman Catholicism and by April, 1903, it had become an obsession.

By then, Agius had been made an agent of the pope. He suggested that the king speak to the pope about his wish to convert. The king was going to Italy and did, in fact, see Pope Leo XIII although there is no official record of what they discussed in private.

Josephine said that the pope would not hear of the conversion. He advised the king that as the head of the Church of England, converting to Roman Catholicism would be impossible, unthinkable. He told him gravely that it was something he could only contemplate on his death bed, when it would be a private decision between him and His Maker.

Will you tell him that I am in heaven where they are treating me well?

The words were to make a deep impact on the king. He confided in his friend Edward and the two of them arranged for a Maltese Dominican priest, Innocenzo Apap, to go to Edward’s house at Belsize Grove in Hampstead, every Monday afternoon.

The king went there in an unmarked carriage and had tea with the family, including the toddler grandchild Josephine, who had lived with Edward since her father had died when she was just a year old. Josephine still clearly recalls being bounced on the king’s knee and eating strawberry jam and butter.

After tea, the king retired to the library with the Dominican priest where they discussed the teachings of the Church.

The clandestine Monday meetings continued for many years but then in 1910, the king went to Paris and Biarritz and caught a bad cold, which he could not shake off. By the time he returned to England, it had become bronchitis and he had a series of heart attacks.

Queen Alexandra knew that the situation was serious. It had all been carefully arranged. She sent a note to Agius, who called for Fr Apap.

Dressed in plain clothes, they were taken to the palace where they waited. They were eventually shown into the king’s room by a back entrance and there King Edward VII was converted to Roman Catholicism. It was as he wished it to be, just between him and his conscience. Agius and Fr Apap respected his wishes for secrecy.

Two months later, Josephine was taken upstairs by her nanny Clara Porter. They were on their way to pray at the little chapel they had there and found Josephine’s aunt, Daisy, there, arranging red roses on the altar.

And there, sitting on the chair was the ghost of the king, dressed in a bright green velvet coat.

“Oh, the king,” Clara cried out, totally bewildered.

Josephine was totally unself-conscious. She ran to take her accustomed place on his lap.

“Where is your father?” the king asked.

Business, she replied. Her aunt Daisy added, hesitantly:

“My brother is in the city.”

“Will you tell him that I am in heaven where they are treating me well,” he said. “Tell him that all our efforts were worthwhile.”

He patted Josephine on the head and got up. He walked away and simply disappeared, leaving Clara and Daisy in tears.

Josephine claims that apart from a few family members who knew of the conversion, Agius and Fr Apap took the story with them to their graves, but she decided that the story should be told.

A year before she spoke to me, she had written the story and sent it to Cardinal Hume but there was nothing in writing to substantiate her story and the cardinal apparently felt he could take it no further.

Rumours of the king’s obsession with Roman Catholicism are documented, and Fr Apap was well known for his work in establishing contact with different religions in London at the time. Other dates and details also tally with biographies of the king.

This is the 49th in a series of short stories The Sunday Times of Malta is running every Sunday. It is taken from The Unexplained Plus (Allied Publications) by Vanessa Macdonald. The first edition was published in 2001 and reprinted twice. It was republished, with added stories, as The Unexplained Plus. The Maltese version of the book, Ta’ Barra Minn Hawn (Klabb Kotba Maltin), is available from all leading bookstores and stationers and from www.bdlbooks.com.

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