In the words of her husband, she is the ”great professional”. Queen Sofia of Spain has been easily the most popular member of her country’s royal family for years. She’s also been one of the most influential royals Europe has known in recent times. As he worked towards dismantling the machinery of dictatorship that had held Spain in its grip since the country’s civil war, she was at the side of King Juan Carlos. Once freedom was assured, she helped him create one of the most admired royal families of modern times. Now, as her husband announces he will go into exile as allegations of financial misconduct continue to swirl around him, what will happen to Sofia of Spain?
August usually means a holiday in Mallorca for Queen Sofia, whose love of country she has called home since her marriage in 1962 is well known and one of the many reasons she retains a level of admiration that many royals across the continent still aspire to. She is often seen at local markets there or on the water with her grandchildren. But even if Sofia does head to the holiday island this summer, the setting this time round will be far from idyllic. Her husband of almost sixty years is preparing to leave the country he ruled – for an uncertain future. Questions are now being asked as to whether she will go with him or remain in Madrid to support their son, King Felipe VI.
For if there is one person who loves Sofia more than any other, it is her youngest child. The two are famously close and she has been at his side for all the major moments of his life and reign. The decision of Juan Carlos to quit Spain comes after months of intense speculation about his money which led to Felipe renouncing his personal inheritance from his father. However, pressure on the whole royal family continued even after that move, with the Spanish Prime Minister, Pedro Sanchez, recently describing allegations against Juan Carlos as ”disturbing”, an unprecedented political intervention in the affairs of the House of Bourbon. The former monarch’s flight into exile might put physical distance between him and the throne but the debate will continue. Felipe perhaps needs Sofia at his side now, more than ever.
It’s also no secret that Juan Carlos and Sofia have had a turbulent marriage. Rumours of affairs have followed the former monarch for years and reports of the financial scandal now engulfing him also involve Corinna zu Sayn-Wittgenstein with whom he is widely reported to have had a relationship in the later years of his reign. Truth be told, the amount of time the Emeritus King and Queen have spent together in recent times might well be limited. But they remain wife and husband.
Exile would be nothing new for Sofia who was born in Athens in 1938. However, she spent her early years in Cairo after her royal family were forced abroad during World War Two. She returned to Greece in 1947 but fifteen years later, left for Madrid after her marriage to Juan Carlos. Her new home country was still under the rule of the fascist dictator, Francisco Franco, and even when Juan Carlos was named as official heir to the throne, their future was far from certain. They became King and Queen of Spain in November 1975 on Franco’s death with Juan Carlos taking a leading role in bringing democracy to Spain. Sofia was at his side throughout. Whatever their personal differences, her husband has always been her greatest public cheerleader and has made no secret of his admiration for her commitment to their royal roles, his ambitions for his country and to the people of Spain.
But now they stand at a crossroads that perhaps neither could ever have predicted. Juan Carlos has said he will leave Spain, for the present time, but whether he will ever return is unknown. So, too, is where he will live now. Both Juan Carlos and Sofia are 82 years old although her health is better than his. Starting a new life, however comfortable, was surely never on the wishlist for their retirements.
Queen Sofia of Spain has had a low profile in recent months, mostly due to the coronavirus pandemic. It would be a sad state of affairs if her royal career were to end with her fading into complete retirement at her husband’s side in another country she must learn to call her own. But with Spain’s monarchy now facing one of its most trying times in a decade that has been more than difficult, can she carve another new role for herself at a time when every move is under the spotlight?
The powerful partnership she formed with King Juan Carlos for so many decades is a legacy all of its own but perhaps one that won’t be fully seen until after their town times. As the summer sun settles on the sand of Mallorca she loves so much, Sofia faces the question of where next for the consort who helped create one of the most successful monarchs in 20th century European history.