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A year of controversy, again, for Spain’s royals but ‘Leonormania’ provides a path to the future

The future queen of Spain has taken centre stage in her royal family’s life in 2023. In the year that Princess Leonor turned 18, and came of age, the heir to the throne has been the highest profile member of her dynasty. From military training to parliamentary promises, the Princess of Asturias has been a leading light for a royal family that has otherwise been mired in controversy. Again. If the past continues to haunt Spain’s royals, the future, it seems, is Leonor.

Spain’s royal year began with sadness as Felipe VI mourned his uncle, Constantine II, the last King of the Hellenes. Constantine died in January and Felipe joined his mother, Queen Sofia, in Athens as final preparations for the funeral were made. It was a family affair as the Spanish king was accompanied by his wife, Queen Letizia, while his sisters, Infanta Elena and Infanta Sofia, were also among the mourners. However, as has become usual, the main debate revolved around Felipe VI’s father. King Juan Carlos flew from Abu Dhabi to join his family in grieving for King Constantine and his brief embrace with King Felipe following the ceremony attracted huge attention.

Star TV still/ fair use

Meanwhile, Princess Leonor continued her studies in Wales where she was completing a two year course at UWC Atlantic College. There was little surprise when it was confirmed that her younger sister, Infanta Sofia, would follow her lead and take the same study path from September 2023. King Felipe and Queen Letizia returned to Spain and their usual diary of engagements which included staples like the opening of the International Contemporary Arts Fair and the National Prizes for Innovation and Design. As in recent years, the bulk of duties has fallen on the king and queen in this very slimline royal family and the later part of 2023 would be marked by a decline in engagements for Queen Sofia who marked her 85th birthday in 2023. But it remained Sofia’s husband who had the ability to cause debate.

The early months of 2023 saw Juan Carlos joined in his home of Abu Dhabi by his eldest grandchild, Felipe de Marichalar. However, Juan Carlos returned once more to Spain in April 2023, starting what would prove to be a more intense pattern of visits to the country he once ruled than in the three years since he chose to go into exile. His spring arrival prompted speculation about meetings with King Felipe which inevitably attracted more interest than the day to day activities of Spain’s monarch. There was a chance to step into the spotlight for King Felipe and Queen Letizia as they travelled to London in May 2023 to join royalty from around the world at the Coronation of King Charles III.

King Felipe and Queen Letizia greet King Charles on the eve of his Coronation
(Photo by Ian Jones/Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office/CC/Flickr)

London proved to be lucky for King Felipe who was on hand to see Carlos Alcarez claim the Men’s Singles title at Wimbledon and whose heartfelt congratulations made headlines around the world as did the royal suit which became the subject of a viral tweet from a style expert that may have made it the standout royal outfit of 2023.

Casa de S. M. el Rey

Soon after Felipe’s return to Spain, the country went to the polls but the general election proved inconclusive and a process of political negotiation that would lead the king to controversy began. He headed to Mallorca for his annual summer stay there with Queen Letizia, Princess Leonor and Infanta Sofia at his side. They joined Queen Sofia and her sister, Princess Irene, whose health gave cause for concern during the year. But Leonor and Sofia’s kindness to their great aunt caught attention as did their calm confidence in the engagements that they carried out on what would prove to be an important break for them all. As August continued, Leonor headed to Zaragoza where she began her military training. As it started so did a new royal phenomenon, Leonormania.

Princess Leonor says farewell to her father, King Felipe, as she begins military training (Casa de S.M. el Rey

The start of her year’s formation with the army was accompanied by the appearance of an army of photographers. From that moment onwards, sightings of the heir to the throne became royal gold. As more than one commentator noted in the last days of Spain’s summer, the future is now Leonor, and for a brief moment as autumn began, it shone a sparkling spotlight on Spain’s royal family that nothing could apparently dim.

Casa de S.M. el Rey

In the early days of October 2023, Princess Leonor swore allegiance to the flag of Spain. The heir made her pledge at a ceremony in Zaragoza for all the cadets she had been undergoing military training with since August. However, after the group oath, the princess stepped forward to make her own promise and to kiss the flag held before her. Her parents, King Felipe and Queen Letizia, oversaw the ceremony but couldn’t contain their pride when their daughter stepped forward. Later, Princess Leonor signed the book of honour as her dad looked on.

Casa de SM el Rey

On the eve of this special event, Leonor had joined her fellow cadets at another special event. As is traditional, they had been to church to pay homage to the Virgin of Pilar in Zaragoza, as all trainees do the day before swearing allegiance to the flag.

Casa de S.M. el Rey

These traditional acts produced an image of a queen in waiting. These were further reinforced just days later when Leonor joined her parents at Spain’s National Day parade, wearing military uniform for the ceremony for the first time. The future queen was at her father’s side as he laid a wreath in honour of all those who have given their lives for Spain. Princess Leonor was alongside him as the military parade went past.

© Casa de S.M. el Rey

The princess was back with her family soon afterwards as they travelled to Oviedo in Asturias for the prestigious awards that bear the name of the heir to the throne. Leonor has overseen the Princess of Asturias awards for several years now but the 2023 ceremony was particularly significant as it came just before her 18th birthday and the moment she could assume royal power on her own, if need be.

Casa de S.M. el Rey

And yet at that event, where the princess was joined by her parents, King Felipe and Queen Letizia, as well as her younger sister, Infanta Sofia, the seeds of discontent were already being sown. The heir was especially attentive to her paternal grandmother, Queen Sofia, who walked with her into the auditorium and looked on proudly as the young princess gave another well received speech. Days later, it was announced that the same proud grandmother wouldn’t be present at one of the most important moments of Leonor’s life. Queen Sofia confirmed she would miss the princess swearing allegiance to the Spanish constitution as her husband, King Juan Carlos, wouldn’t be there and she wanted to avoid any differentiation on this most significant of days. Leonor’s bright new star was, once more, battling with the shadows of the past.

Casa de S.M. el Rey still/ fair use

But storm clouds were already gathering for the family, regardless. The political negotiations following the general election eventually led to King Felipe asking the second placed party, the PSOE, to form a government after the winning group, the PP, failed to bring together the coalition they needed to assume power. The Royal Household said this was in line with the constitution but dissatisfaction with the coalition that PSOE leader, Pedro Sanchez, proposed led to large scale demonstrations in some Spanish cities. Against that backdrop, Princess Leonor came of age. As she turned 18, on October 31st 2023, and became able to reign in her own right or act as regent if required, she prepared to head to a parliament in the middle of a political storm.

Casa de S.M. el Rey/ X still/ fair use

If it worried her, she put all nerves to one side. Cheered through the streets in a spectacular procession with her sister, Sofia, the heir to the throne stepped out confidently in front of the Cortes and headed inside to swear her allegiance to the constitution that her grandfather, Juan Carlos, had helped create. She received a prolonged standing ovation after her oath, almost bringing her father, King Felipe, to tears. There were more congratulations as she was presented with medals of honour by both houses of the Spanish parliament before greeting hundreds of politicians. If the future was Leonor, she was more than ready for it.

Casa de S.M. el Rey

However, Spain’s recent royal past has been one marked by controversy and trouble wasn’t hard to find in the last months of 2023. King Felipe and Queen Letizia began a highly anticipated State Visit to Denmark at the start of November, only to find this glittering tour overshadowed by a story in a Spanish magazine about a friendship that had seen one of their hosts, Crown Prince Frederik, spend an evening in Madrid with a female friend. Just weeks later, Queen Letizia found her own personal life in the spotlight when her former brother in law, Jaime del Burgos, claimed that he had had a relationship with her before and after her marriage to King Felipe.

Point de Vue still/ fair use

The year ended as it had begun, with the Spanish royal family all together again, albeit in happier circumstances. King Juan Carlos was once more in Madrid for a birthday party for his eldest child, Infanta Elena, who turned 60 in December. King Juan Carlos and Queen Letizia were also there but while they arrived almost casually, strolling into the restaurant, it was the former monarch who was given the royal treatment, walked out of the celebration by the birthday girl who made a great show of curtseying to her father in front of the assembled cameras.

Casa de S.M. el Rey

Christmas Eve saw King Felipe deliver his annual speech and he put particular emphasis on the importance of Spain’s constitution and on unity, noting there were many things that brought Spain together to make it great. His own royal family had seen disparate elements take the spotlight at different times through the year but as it came to an end, they could perhaps reflect on the elements that united them and look to a future which, as the saying went in 2023, was all about Leonor.

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About author

Lydia Starbuck is Jubilee and Associate Editor at Royal Central and the main producer and presenter of the Royal Central Podcast and Royal Central Extra. Lydia is also a pen name of June Woolerton who is a journalist and writer with over twenty years experience in TV, radio, print and online. Her latest book, A History of British Royal Jubilees, is out now. Her new book, The Mysterious Death of Katherine Parr, will be published in March 2024. June is an award winning reporter, producer and editor. She's appeared on outlets including BBC 5 Live, BBC Radio Ulster and BBC Local Radio and has also helped set up a commercial radio station. June is also an accomplished writer with a wide range of material published online and in print. She is the author of two novels, published as e-books. She is also a marriage registrar and ceremony celebrant.