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The exiled royal whose story continues to fascinate: Juan Carlos of Spain


King Juan Carlos of Spain marks his birthday as much in the headlines as ever. Despite living in self imposed exile for over a year, the anniversary of his birth excites as much attention in the country he once ruled as any other royal event. In the weeks before he turned 84, on January 5th 2022, papers were filled with articles asking if the former monarch was on his way home. His story is an integral part of modern Spain and his every move remains a fascination.

It all began in far more low key circumstances. Juan Carlos Alfonso Victor Maria was born January 5th 1938 in Rome where his parents lived in exile following the royal family’s flight from Spain in 1931. Juan Carlos was the first son and second child of Juan, Count of Barcelona and his wife, Maria de las Mercedes of Bourbon-Two Sicilies. He spent his earliest years in Rome before moving to Lausanne in Switzerland and then Estoril in Portugal. By then, the country his family had fled was under the control of the Fascist dictator, Francisco Franco, following a devastating civil war. The life of a young royal was of little interest to anyone.

In 1941, his grandfather, Alfonso XIII, renounced his rights to the now defunct Spanish throne in favour of Juan, Count of Barcelona whose focus now fell on restoring the monarchy. In 1948, Juan Carlos was sent to Spain by his parents to be educated after a deal was struck with Franco, who now ruled the country with an iron grip. The ten year old royal and the dictator’s paths were irrevocably entwined from that point onwards.

Juan Carlos attended school in San Sebastian and in Madrid and returned occasionally to see his exiled family. By the time he began military officer training, in 1955, at the Academy in Zaragoza, he was seen by many as a rather dull young man with few noticeable skills.

However, a trip home to see his family at Easter 1956 turned into a tragedy that marked him forever. His younger brother, Alfonso, had rushed home to see Juan Carlos and the two had begun playing with a gun. One shot was heard and by the time their parents reached the room, fourteen year old Alfonso was dead. Juan, Count of Barcelona is reported to have grabbed Juan Carlos and shouted ‘’tell me that wasn’t on purpose’’. Juan Carlos went back to Spain days later. He remains devastated at the violent loss of his brother.

After his military training, Juan Carlos attended the University of Madrid. But while Juan, Count of Barcelona continued to press his claims to the Spanish throne, Franco was focusing on Juan Carlos . In 1961, the young prince, went to live at the Zarzuela Palace in Madrid and take on official duties. Franco wanted to restore the monarchy in its most absolute form and needed a suitable candidate for king. For some, the apparently plodding and at times opaque character of Juan Carlos made him ideal. Juan Carlos was drawn further into public life in Spain while his father remained a spectator in exile.

However, the Count of Barcelona remained head of the family and was keen for his only surviving son to marry. In 1962, Juan Carlos wed Princess Sofia of Greece in Athens in a ceremony seen as a boost to the prospects of Spain’s royal family as the bride’s family was still in power. The young couple set up home in Madrid and had three children – Elena (1963), Cristina (1965) and Felipe (1968).

In 1969, Juan Carlos was officially named as heir apparent to the throne of Spain by Franco, bypassing the claims of the Count of Barcelona. Franco’s intention was that, on his death, Juan Carlos would be declared king and continue his authoritarian regime. As the dictator’s health declined, Juan Carlos took on more of his roles and occasionally acted as Head of State. Franco ceded power to Juan Carlos on October 30th 1975 and on his death, on November 20th that year, Juan Carlos was declared king. He had done little to dispel his image as a plodding prince and his accession was welcomed by many of the old guard who saw little prospect of change under the apparently dull king shaped by Franco. For many, he was little more than a puppet, put in place by a dictator.

Within months, he had dispelled that image and shocked the Spanish establishment. Unbeknown to Franco, he had been making plans to start the process of introducing democracy to the country he hadn’t even visited until he was ten. By 1976, that process was well under way and Juan Carlos dismissed Prime Minister, Carlos Arias Navarro, who opposed the changes. In 1977, Spain held its first post Franco democratic elections with Adolfo Suarez chosen as Prime Minister. In 1978, Juan Carlos oversaw the introduction of a new constitution which completed the country’s move to democracy. The new king had completed his revolution.

However, dissent against the new freedoms continued and on February 23rd 1981, an attempted military coup put Spain’s new democracy in peril. Antonio Tejero led over 200 members of the Guardia Civil into the Cortes as it began the process of electing a new Prime Minister. Politicians were held hostage as the coup leaders demanded a return to the pre-democracy era. Juan Carlos went on television, in his military uniform, to denounce the coup. His intervention, both public and private, was seen as instrumental in the dismantling of the demands. The coup was over within 24 hours and the new King of Spain emerged as his country’s hero.

From then on, Juan Carlos entered a period of unparalleled popularity as he supported Spain’s growth into a vibrant European democracy. The Spanish Royal Family enjoyed record levels of support and Juan Carlos was at its heart. He remained a strong advisory voice in politics while his guidance on economic matters was also seen as important.

He worked hard to put this newly reborn nation on the world map, a project that came to its highest point in 1992 when the Summer Olympics were held in Barcelona and Spain’s emergence from the dark days of dictatorship was seen as complete. At one point in his reign, his reputation was so strong that an urban myth arose of a motorist stranded in desert conditions who, fearing death, was saved by a motorcyclist who appeared from nowhere and helped him. The saviour in the many versions of this tale was always King Juan Carlos.

By the start of the 21st century, Juan Carlos saw his legacy secured by the marriage of his children and the arrival of eight grandchildren. However, as Spain was plunged into economic decline by the financial troubles of the late 2000s, the royal reputation began to suffer.

Rumours that the king’s younger daughter, Infanta Cristina, had been involved in financial mismanagement turned into a court case when she was charged with tax fraud although she would ultimately be acquitted. Speculation about Juan Carlos’ own fortune also began as did rumours about his health. In 2012, he had to be flown back to Spain from Botswana after suffering a fall on a hunting trip that left him needing surgery. The backlash was immediate and severe. The king made a public apology but the damage was done. His once sky high popularity ratings plummeted.

On June 2nd 2014, Juan Carlos announced that he would stand aside in favour of his only son. His abdication was signed on June 18th and took effect at midnight when the throne passed to Felipe VI. Republican protests took place across Spain demanding an end to the monarchy, not just the reign of Juan Carlos, but for the first years of the new regime, the image of the retired king supporting his young successor began to erode opposition to the Crown.

However, fresh allegations about Juan Carlos’ finances began to emerge. He retired from public life in 2019 and in March 2020, as the coronavirus pandemic took hold, King Felipe publicly renounced all personal inheritance from his father and cut the former monarch’s allowances. In the weeks that followed, further claims of financial mismanagement emerged against Juan Carlos. As Spain tried to rebuild following the first wave of the virus, Juan Carlos announced that he was going into self imposed exile. He had already left by the time his news was made public. He was eventually confirmed to be living in the United Arab Emirates.

However, 2021 saw a change in his fortunes. Several polls showed limited support, among older Spaniards at least, for the former monarch to return home. Prosecutors in Geneva dropped an investigation into money laundering involving Juan Carlos who also paid off tax bills in Spain, ending another inquiry into his finances. Although Spain’s Supreme Court is still looking into his money matters, pressure on the king have eased. Reports continue that he wants to return to Spain and his birthday has become a key focus for that.

A new life in Spain for Juan Carlos would write yet another chapter in his endlessly turbulent tale and provide fresh challenges for his country and its monarchy as he remains, now, a controversial figure. But he is also an integral part of the story of modern Spain and as he marks another birthday, his impact on that country continues to fascinate.

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, a journalist and writer with over twenty years experience in TV, radio, print and online. June has been a reporter, producer and editor, picking up several awards over the years. 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.