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Who is King Juan Carlos – Spain’s exiled emeritus monarch?


PHOTO: IREKIA/CC BY 2.0/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Juan Carlos I of Spain ruled his country for almost four decades, its first king in over forty years. He was once the most popular monarch in Europe but his later years have been mired in scandal.

Juan Carlos Alfonso Victor Maria was born in Rome, Italy where his family were living in exile. He was the son of Juan, Count of Barcelona and Princess Maria of Bourbon-Two Sicilies. His father was the heir to the then abolished Spanish throne.

In 1948, Juan Carlos moved to Spain after his father persuaded Franco to allow him to study there. His education started in San Sebastian and ended in 1954 at the San Isidro Institute in Madrid. Juan Carlos subsequently undertook military training. He also studied at the University of Madrid. After his studies he went to live at the Zarzuela Palace and began carrying out public duties.

On the 14 May 1962, Juan Carlos married Princess Sophia of Greece, who was the daughter of King Paul and Queen Frederica. The couple were wed in Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox Ceremonies in Athens. Three children were born to the marriage, Infanta Elena in 1963, Infanta Cristina in 1965 and Prince Felipe in 1968. Franco designated Juan Carlos his official heir in 1969 with the title of Prince of Spain.

General Franco died on 20 November 1975 and, two days, later Juan Carlos was sworn in as King before the Cortes (Parliament). It was expected he would continue Franco’s policies however he decided to make Spain a democracy. Free elections were held in 1977 and a new Constitution was proclaimed in 1978. In February 1981 there was an attempt to restore military rule with the seizure of the Cortes. Juan Carlos stood against the attempt and it failed.

The high point of his reign came in the early 1990s. The year 1992 was a major moment for Spain. The nation marked 500 years since the discovery of the Americas by Christopher Columbus. World Expo was held in Seville and the Olympic Games were held in Barcelona with the then Prince Felipe, a competitor in the Games, carrying the Spanish Flag at the opening ceremony. Juan Carlos also made an apology to the Jewish people for the decision in 1492 by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella to expel all the Jews from Spain.

By the time King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia celebrated the wedding of their daughter, Infanta Elena, in 1995 in Seville, royal popularity was high. Infanta Cristina married in 1997 in Barcelona to Inaki Undangarin and Felipe, Prince of Asturias, wed journalist Letizia Ortiz in Madrid in 2004.

In the years afterwards, the considerable popularity of Juan Carlos began to wane due to a series of scandals. He was criticized heavily for a hunting trip to Botswana as Spain was undergoing serious financial crisis which came to light when he broke his hip there and had to be flown back home. Rumours about affairs continued as did his health problems. Meanwhile, investigations into allegations of financial misconduct against Infanta Cristina and Inaki Urdangarin hit the headlines. Eventually, Cristina became the first member of the country’s Royal Family to be put on trial when she faced charges of tax fraud. She was acquitted but her husband, Inaki Urdangarin, was jailed for embezzling public funds.

On the 19 June 2014 he cited personal reasons for his decision to abdicate in favor of his son, Felipe. He withdrew completely from public life in 2019.

More recently allegations emerged that he had received kickbacks from a rail project in Saudi Arabia and the Supreme Court began investigating those allegations. In August 2020 it was announced he would go into exile in the hope it would spare his son and the Spanish Monarchy any further damage. Queen Sophia decided to remain in Spain to support her son and continue her Royal Duties. It would seem at this stage the life of King Juan Carlos will end where it began – in exile.