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A year on: the exile of King Juan Carlos


On the afternoon of August 3rd 2020, a simple letter was sent to the King of Spain. In it, the man who had once ruled the country told his successor that he was leaving to protect the monarchy. By the time that letter was made public, Juan Carlos I of Spain had gone into self-imposed exile.

A year on, the man they call King Emeritus remains thousands of miles from the country he once helped bring to democracy. But the dramatic story of Juan Carlos continues to dominate Spain.

As the first anniversary of his exile approached, details of a court case brought by his former lover appeared. Corinna zu Sayn-Wittgenstein asked a British judge for a restraining order on Juan Carlos and Spain’s secret services after alleging they had spied on her. All those accused deny any wrongdoing. But the story once again put Juan Carlos in the headlines and shone a spotlight on the reason for his downfall: money.

He left Spain as speculation about his financial affairs reached fever pitch. The final years of his reign, before his abdication in favour of his only son in June 2014, had been filled with increasing questions over the finances of Juan Carlos. Those questions continued after he stepped aside for Felipe VI.

In the months before his unexpected exile announcement, the socialist coalition government of Pedro Sanchez had put pressure on Juan Carlos and his son over ongoing allegations of financial impropriety by the former monarch. Just as the coronavirus pandemic took hold of Spain, in March 2020, Felipe had issued a statement in which he relinquished any personal inheritance set to come to him from his father to distance himself from the increasing scrutiny over where Juan Carlos had acquired his considerable royal fortune. But disquiet over Juan Carlos’ financial affairs continued to grow with calls from politicians for him to leave Spain. In the end, he did but on his own terms.

The news of his departure shocked Spain. Headlines announced that the man who had once been a hero king with approval ratings of 90% had ”abandoned” his country. Allegations of corruption were scrutinised even further while the mystery over his place of exile turned into an international saga. It took almost two weeks for the whereabouts of Juan Carlos to be revealed. When a photo of him descending the steps of a private plane confirmed he was in Abu Dhabi, a new wave of criticism was sent in the direction of the former monarch. As summer turned to autumn, the heat around his departure began to lessen but the controversial king has never remained far from the headlines since.

The exile of Juan Carlos was meant to be temporary. In the brief statement that announced he had left the country he ruled for so long, no time limit was given. But the inference was that the monarch would return. In the months following his flight, several Spanish newspapers reported, on various occasions, that the King Emeritus was hoping to come home. There was talk of him returning for Christmas or for his 83rd birthday, in January 2021. When he settled tax bills on two separate occasions, thus freeing himself from the possibility of prosecution in both cases, speculation mounted. But he never re-appeared.

He has been seen on just a handful of occasions since he left, always from a distance as photographers grab a brief snap of a man whose image once dominated Spain. His daughters, Infanta Elena and Infanta Cristina, have both been to visit him but it’s not known what contact, if any, he has had with King Felipe since leaving Spain. His links to his wife, Queen Sofia, also remain unknown. The two have been married for 59 years although the state of their relationship had been the subject of speculation even before Juan Carlos abdicated in favour of their only son. Sofia, too, has been rarely seen in the past twelve months as the coronavirus pandemic continues.

As the first anniversary of his exile approached, one newspaper reported that over half of Spain wants Juan Carlos to come home. The man himself remains silent although the past twelve months have shown that he is likely to act before letting anyone known his intentions.

A year on, the future of King Juan Carlos remains as mysterious as it did on that August day when he shocked Spain by announcing he had left the country he once called his own.

About author

Lydia Starbuck is 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.