King Juan Carlos loved Spain and it loved him back. At the height of his popularity, urban myths sprang up of a person stranded in one of Spain’s most arid spots, desperate for help until a motorcyclist appeared out of nowhere to rescue them. The man on the motorbike was Juan Carlos. Now, he is citing that love of Spain for his decision to quit its shores and live abroad as allegations of financial misconduct swirl around him.
There is no doubt that he has dedicated his life to the country, turning it into a democracy in a few short years after being left the throne by the fascist dictator, Francisco Franco. But Juan Carlos wasn’t born in Spain and didn’t set foot in the land he came to love so much for the best part of a decade following his birth.
Juan Carlos Alfonso Victor Maria was born on January 5th 1938 in Rome where Spain’s Royal Family was living in exile following the flight of King Alfonso XIII, his grandfather, from Madrid. The first son of Juan, Count of Barcelona and Maria de las Mercedes of Bourbon-Two Sicilies, Juan Carlos spent his earliest years outside of Spain. As well as homes in Rome, his family also settled in Estoril on the coast of Portugal, not far from Lisbon. However, in 1948, Franco agreed for him to come to Spain to be educated. The young Juan Carlos lived in Madrid while his family remained in exile.
In 1969, Franco decided to name Juan Carlos as heir apparent to the throne of Spain. His intention was that he would continue his authoritarian rule. His father watched him take on this role on TV in Estoril, where Juan and Maria de las Mercedes were then living. Juan Carlos became King of Spain on November 20th 1975. And within a short space of time, he showed he had no intention of following in Franco’s footsteps. Democracy was brought to Spain with Juan Carlos hailed as one of its architects.
His popularity only continued to grow as Spain’s economy began to grow along with its freedoms. That urban legend of the desperate man rescued by the royal motorcyclist had more than one version told. But financial scandal clouded the glowing legacy. He stepped aside as king in 2014 but the allegations surrounding his finances continued. On August 3rd 2020, the man many saw as a saviour of Spain said he would leave to live overseas, for the love of his country.
A life that began in exile may yet end that way, too.