The Spanish Royal Family has had a turbulent time over the course of the last century, and not just because of the establishment of the Second Spanish Republic and subsequent dictatorship of General Francisco Franco. Much of the 20th century saw Spain nominally ruled by King Juan Carlos I, until his abdication in 2014.
Juan Carlos was born in exile in Italy in 1938, while a bloody civil war was being fought in Spain between the communists and the ultra-right nationalists, led by General Franco. The world of Juan Carlos took a turn bizarrely morbid turn when he was aged just 18, and his fourteen-year-old brother Alfonso died in a tragic shooting accident - one in which Juan Carlos had pulled the trigger. The brothers were alone in the room as they played with a .22 caliber Long Automatic Star revolver belonging to Alfonso, when Juan Carlos pointed it at his brother and fired, unaware that it was loaded. Their father, Juan de Borbon, is said to have grabbed his surviving son by the neck and shouted “Swear to me that you didn’t do it on purpose!”
In 1962 Juan Carlos married Princess Sofia of Greece in a lavish ceremony watched by millions across the globe. The couple went on to have three children: Elena, Cristina and Felipe. From 1969 to 1975, Juan Carlos held the position of Prince of Spain, after Franco opted to skip a generation of the Spanish Royal Family and name Juan Carlos his successor rather than his father, Juan de Borbon.
King Juan Carlos I’s reign began in earnest in 1975 after the death of Franco on 20th November. Much to the chagrin of Spain’s conservative elements, Juan Carlos I began to institute numerous reforms, thereby earning left-wing support for the Spanish monarchy. He had secured the country’s democracy once and for all. An attempted military coup d’etat in 1981 saw the legislative chambers seized by the Spanish Civil Guard, to which King Juan Carlos I responded by appearing on television in his military regalia demanding total support for the democratically-elected government - a move that is believed to have played a considerable role in thwarting the coup.
The power of the Spanish monarchy was scaled back after the victory of the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party in 1982, and King Juan Carlos I’s role became largely ceremonial. His popularity remained high among his subjects throughout his reign, even as he became involved in a number of questionable business ventures that threatened to bring the Spanish monarchy into disrepute.
King Juan Carlos’ personal life was also somewhat morally questionable, as a variety of extramarital affairs placed considerable strain on his marriage to Queen Sofia. His relationship with Corinna zu Sayn-Wittgenstein, who has given her first ever on-camera interview to True Royalty in The Rise and Fall of the Spanish King, became public after a much-criticised elephant-hunting trip they took together in Botswana in 2012.
Corinna zu Sayn-Wittgenstein says, “I basically became a media sensation overnight. I was the Lady Macbeth; the Wallis Simpson, who led this man astray. None of this was true.” Instead, she claims she was made a scapegoat by the Spanish Royal Family, to redirect attention from an internal coup d’etat. Juan Carlos I ruled as the King of Spain for almost four decades until his abdication in 2014.
In August 2020 Jaun Carlos went into exile in the United Arab Emirates, in response to claims of improper business dealings in Saudi Arabia - an eventful end to the reign of a man whose life has been intensely dramatic throughout.
The abdication of King Juan Carlos I ushered in the reign of his eldest son, King Felipe VI, whose rule continues to this day. Although his (so far) brief reign has been considerably less eventful than that of his father, King Felipe VI has shown himself to be a progressive by cutting his pay by 20% and being the first Spanish monarch to receive and recognise LGBT organisations at the palace.
At the same time, he appears to be becoming more politically involved in response to Catalonian protests, perhaps reacting to opinion polls that show a majority of his subjects would approve of their king taking a more forceful stance on political issues.