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The shadow that threatened obscurity: Spain’s Royal Year in Review

King Felipe VI of Spain
Image ©Licensed to i-Images/ Picture by i-Images / Pool

In the end, it was the invisible man who attracted all the attention. The royal year in Spain has been dominated by King Juan Carlos. From ongoing scandals to a dramatic flight into exile, his every move has been the focal point for millions. As 2020 comes to an end, the question remains – will the shadow of Juan Carlos send his whole royal house into obscurity?

The year began with sympathy for Spain’s ruling dynasty. On January 8th 2020, Juan Carlos’ older sister, Infanta Pilar, died at the age of 83. Just days earlier, King Felipe had overseen the Pascua Militar in Madrid with Queen Letizia at his side. In his speech, he urged courage in the face of the uncertainty with little idea of how prescient his words might be for 2020.

King Felipe, Queen Letizia, Princess Leonor, Infanta Sofia
King Felipe speaks to the Cortes in February 2020
Photo by Casa de S.M. el Rey

Felipe and Letizia continued their usual round of engagements through the early months of the year. In February, they were joined by their daughters, Princess Leonor and Infanta Sofia, for the official opening of Spain’s parliament. New portraits of all four were released as a planned State Visit to the US was announced. Science, nature and healthcare were their focuses in a string of visits while they ended the month with their traditional visit to the showpiece contemporary art fair in Madrid. It would be one of the final moments of normality in a year of challenges.

By early March, as Queen Letizia spoke about one of her most valued patronages, the coronavirus pandemic was already having a devastating effect on Spain. Days later, both Letizia and Felipe tested negative for the virus as the country prepared to enter lockdown. But the spectre of Juan Carlos was about to rise again. The former monarch hadn’t been seen in public since Infanta Pilar’s funeral but allegations about his finances had continued. Just ahead of shutdown, King Felipe renounced all personal inheritances from his father and cut his allowances in a dramatic statement.

King Felipe VI of Spain, Princess Leonor
King Felipe and Princess Leonor lead a national act of commemoration for victims of coronavirus in July 2020
Casa de S.M. el Rey

Life in lockdown for King Felipe and his family was quiet. The monarch visited his country’s Armed Forces to thank them for their efforts while Princess Leonor and Infanta Sofia made a video appearance to express their gratitude to frontline workers. As May came to an end, King Felipe and Queen Letizia began limited public engagements again, visiting an early morning market to see how food distribution had continued. On May 27th 2020, they were joined by Leonor and Sofia for a moving ceremony in the gardens of the Zarzuela Palace which began a ten day period of national mourning for all those who had lost their lives to coronavirus. In the weeks to come, the whole family would continue to lead tributes and commemorations with Princess Leonor taking a lead role in Spain’s main act of remembrance in Madrid.

Spain’s royal summer was meant to be about rebuilding but before the sun set on it, the dynasty had been shaken to its very foundations. In June, King Felipe and Queen Letizia began several months of engagements focused on showing support for all sectors of Spanish society in the midst of the pandemic. A trip to the theatre was followed by the first of their mini tours which took them to every region of Spain in an effort to boost the economy and tourism. Yet just as their visits got under way, more controversy around King Juan Carlos and his finances led Spain’s Prime Minister, Pedro Sanchez, to make a rare intervention when he described new allegations about the former monarch as ‘disturbing’

King Felipe, Queen Letizia, Princess Leonor, Infanta Sofia
King Felipe and his family during their tour of Spain to show solidarity during the coronavirus pandemic
Casa de S. M. el Rey

As King Felipe continued with high profile duties focused on the fightback from the pandemic, including an event marking the official reopening of the border between his country and Portugal, focus on his father’s finances intensified, not just in Spain but across the world. Leonor and Sofia became an increasingly visible presence on summer engagements but not even that could distract from the shadow of their grandfather and the royal year was about to become even more turbulent.

On August 3rd 2020, King Juan Carlos announced that he had gone into self imposed exile. A short statement confirmed that the man who had helped bring Spain to democracy and had ruled it for almost four decades had now left. King Felipe made a public show of support for the decision but controversy turned to anger when the whereabouts of Juan Carlos remained shrouded in mystery for two weeks. By the time it was confirmed he had gone to the United Arab Emirates, his wife, Queen Sofia, had made it clear she would stay in Spain while public opinion of the former monarch took a battering.

King Felipe, Queen Letizia, Princess Leonor, Infanta Sofia
The annual royal stay in Mallorca took on a very different form in 2020
Casa de S.M. el Rey

It was against that backdrop that Felipe began a tradition started by Juan Carlos and headed to Mallorca for the family summer holidays. Once more, his daughters took the lead on engagements as the family put on a united front with Infanta Sofia even carrying on with duties despite a painful leg injury. But the Royal family’s usual summer photo session was cancelled with press interest focused instead on the first meeting between King Felipe and Pedro Sanchez since the exile announcement. Meanwhile, Queen Letizia underlined the personal impact of a bruising few months when she spoke about her elder child’s future.

The autumn brought little respite from the scandals of the summer. Outward efforts were focused on normality. Princess Leonor and Infanta Sofia returned to school (although they ended up in quarantine soon afterwards after contact with a pupil with Covid) and Queen Letizia showed support for favourite causes including Spain’s Red Cross but political problems continued to build. In late September, a row broke out after King Felipe’s planned attendance at the swearing in of new judges was cancelled at the last minute. The Spanish government was accused of interference while Felipe let it be known he had wanted to take part, leading to stinging accusations from some politicians. Days later, Felipe led Spain in marking its national day in a scaled back event surrounded by more political controversy.

King Felipe, Queen Letizia, Princess Leonor, Infanta Sofia
Queen Sofia joined celebrations for the Princess of Asturias Awards in October 2020
Casa de S.M. el Rey

Queen Sofia made a rare public appearance when she joined her son and his family in Oviedo for the annual Princess of Asturias Awards. If concerns about the impact of the past had haunted Spain’s royals in the previous months, Princess Leonor’s confident speech at the event, which honoured frontline workers in the coronavirus pandemic, as well as her assured demeanour at the engagements surrounding the main ceremonies provided a hopeful outlook. But Juan Carlos was never far from the headlines. As King Felipe honoured journalists and Queen Letizia supported Spain’s fashion industry, fresh allegations about the former monarch provided more problems for the Crown.

Letizia took charge of Spain’s royal agenda as they year wound towards its end after her husband was forced to quarantine after contact with someone with Covid. By the time Felipe emerged from isolation, reports were growing that his father planned to return to Spain while politicians piled on the pressure for the current king to denounce the former in his Christmas speech. Yet more allegations about the finances of Juan Carlos in December 2020 led to the payment of a bill for back taxes. By the time Queen Letizia headed to Honduras on a humanitarian mission, debate about how King Felipe might deal with his father was escalating. A low key visit by the King and Queen of Spain to Barcelona just before Christmas led to another political row.

King Felipe VI makes his Christmas address 2020
King Felipe’s Christmas speech became a record breaker
Casa de S.M. el Rey

Anticipation ahead of King Felipe’s Christmas speech was huge. In the end, Felipe’s reference to his father was veiled as he spoke of ethics and principles being important for all. The Christmas address of 2020 was the most watched royal festive speech in Spanish history.

As 2020 comes to an end, Spain’s monarchy remains under pressure. A difficult year, in many ways, is giving way to an uncertain future in which the shadow of the past continues to threaten the future.

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.