Spain's Royal Family Chaos: An Ex-King in Exile, Confusion, Coronavirus and More Alleged Corruption

Why 2020 has been such a trying year for the Spanish royals.

By Natalie Finn Sep 01, 2020 7:00 PMTags
Letizia, principe Felipe, rey Juan Carlos I, reina SofíaClasos

Is there a royal family whose kingdom doesn't include a vast swath of scandal territory?

Adding to what had already been a long year for the Spanish royals, the dynasty's former monarch, Juan Carlos I, has turned up in the United Arab Emirates, his arrival in the Gulf principality confirmed by the BBC two weeks after he fled his own country under the cloud of a corruption probe.

There was speculation a couple of days after he left Spain that the 82-year-old was thought to be in either Portugal or the Dominican Republic, but a spokesperson said he had been in the UAE since Aug. 3 and "he remains there." He has also denied any wrongdoing and says he is available to talk to investigators if they wish to interview him. 

The reigning king, meanwhile, stated that he respected his father's decision to leave.

Royal Scandals: The British and Beyond

Juan Carlos, who became king following the death of dictator Francisco Franco in 1975 and helped usher in the beleaguered country's new era of democracy, abdicated in June 2014, turning the reins of the House of Bourbon over to the youngest of his three children (and only son), Crown Prince Felipe, who now rules as King Felipe VI.

The abrupt announcement that morning caused the royal family's website to crash, coming as suddenly as it did, but the country also wasn't entirely shocked. Juan Carlos had been involved in his share of scandal, including a lavish, clandestine elephant-hunting trip to Botswana that he took in 2012, when Spain was years-deep in a financial crisis that The Atlantic referred to as a "grotesque recession."

Which brings the tally of royal families around the world that aren't cloaked in controversy to zero.

Juan Naharro Gimenez/Getty Images

"Today a younger generation deserves to take the front line, with new energies, resolute in undertaking with determination the transformations and reforms that this moment in time demands and to confront tomorrow's challenges with renewed intensity and dedication," Juan Carlos—whose rumor resume is so stacked it includes reports that he made a pass at Princess Diana when she and Prince Charles visited Majorca in 1986—said in his June 2014 abdication speech.

Not long after he stepped down a Belgian woman filed a paternity claim against Juan Carlos, alleging she was his daughter from a 1966 tryst with her mum, but the Spanish Supreme Court denied the suit in 2015.

Also the time, Felipe's older sister Princess Cristina, and her husband, former Olympic handball player Inaki Urdangarin, were under investigation (and would later go on trial) for alleged embezzlement, accused of funneling more than $7 million (at today's exchange rate) into their own accounts from a charity run by Urdangarin that staged sporting events.

fotopress/Getty Images

All were missteps that contributed to increasing anti-royal sentiment, especially among left-wing groups who—though ruling political parties, including the Socialists, continue to support the monarchy—felt that the family was just another relic of a corrupt establishment.

Hence the transfer of power being considered a strategic political move, as well as an outwardly benevolent one for the good of Spain. Felipe, now 52, had a 66 percent approval rating at the time, to his father's 41 percent, according to Reuters.

The worldly Felipe went to high school in Canada and received a master's degree from Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service in Washington, D.C. He made the hometown crowd proud as a member of the Spanish sailing team at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona.

How Meghan Markle Forever Changed the Royal Family

After amassing his own lively dating history, he married Queen Letizia (née Letizia Ortiz Rocasolano, a former TV journalist who was also briefly married once before) in 2004. They have two daughters, 14-year-old Leonor, Princess of Asturias, and 13-year-old Infanta Sofía of Spain.

Tim Graham Photo Library via Getty Images

Despite his attractive family and relative youth, Felipe has struggled to maintain the level of popularity he had heading into his current position. As head of state and commander in chief of the armed forces as well as king, he looks all-powerful on paper, but like many other royals his role is more figurehead than policy-maker. Spain's monarch is looked to for guidance and leadership, though, and he can certainly still be blamed when things go wrong.

Felipe, who in 2015 cut his own salary by almost 20 percent as the country continued to pull itself out of its recession, received a four-minute ovation after delivering his annual address marking the opening of Spain's new legislative session in February, in which he said that the opposing parties that have formed the current coalition government must come together, that "the time has come for words, for arguments and for reasoning, from a position of mutual respect."

A leader of the separatist Catalan Republican Left, however, called the monarchy "an anachronistic institution" and "an heir to Francoism."

A Complete Guide to the Swedish Royal Family: Scandals, Heartbreak & Adorable Kids

So, this king's critics are many, too. And that was before the current crisis.

Europa Press via Getty Images

This past March, Felipe announced that he was renouncing any inheritance he might receive from his father and was terminating Juan Carlos' annual retirement allowance following reports that Juan Carlos is accused of using a Swiss bank account to squirrel away anywhere from $78 million to $100 million he received from Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz in 2008, three years before a Spanish consortium made the winning bid for a $5.5 billion high-speed rail project in Saudi Arabia. (King Abdullah died in 2015.)

Juan Carlos is also alleged to have tried to hide the money by transferring a large amount of it to a woman he was once romantically linked to, who is now being asked to cooperate with Spanish prosecutors.

In addition to an ongoing investigation in Switzerland, the Spanish Supreme Court opened an investigation into the former king in June.

Felipe and the Spanish royal household has denied knowing anything about Juan Carlos' alleged dirty dealings—a denial made all the more urgent because the father had reportedly listed his son as the beneficiary of his off-shore account, opened under the name of the Lucum Foundation, according to The Guardian


The revelations prompted literal outcries from balconies around Madrid on March 18, the people unable to take to the streets due to what was then the recently imposed coronavirus lockdown. Protesters demanded that Juan Carlos immediately donate any money he'd received from the Saudis to Spain's sagging public health system.

A couple weeks later, 86-year-old Princess Maria Teresa of Bourbon-Parma, a distant cousin of Felipe's, became the world's first royal to die of COVID-19, at a hospital in Paris. A memorial service was held in Madrid on March 27 and a Catholic funeral took place in Paris on April 2.

Prince Albert II of Monaco and the U.K.'s Prince Charles also revealed positive coronavirus tests in March, but they made swift recoveries.

TV Shows That Have Resumed Production Amid the Coronavirus Pandemic

Back in April, reminiscent of then-Princess Elizabeth's BBC Radio address for children during World War II, her first-ever national broadcast, Leonor and Sofía recorded a message for their fellow kids in Spain, saying, "We want to say thank you to all the people who are helping out and looking after us in so many ways. You are all important. Thank you. We send you a hug with all our love."


On May 27, Felipe and his wife and daughters appeared in the garden of Zarzuela Palace for a moment of silence for Spain's COVID casualties. A tweet from the household (translated from the original Spanish) read, "Spain mourns for so many thousands of compatriots that we have lost in this pandemic. To all, together with their families, we owe our remembrance, our mourning and our affection."

In July, the family of four, all wearing masks, attended a memorial at the Cathedral Santa María la Real de la Almudena in Madrid for the 28,385 people who had died of the novel coronavirus. (The latest tally as of Sept. 1, according to the Spanish Ministry of Health, is 462,858 cases and 29,094 deaths.)

Juanjo Martín - Pool/Getty Images

When Juan Carlos left Spain last month, his departure was officially announced in a letter to his son that was posted on the palace's website, in which he wrote that he was "guided by my conviction I can offer the best service to Spaniards, its institutions and to you as King" by leaving.

"It's a decision I am taking with deep feeling but with great serenity," he continued, as he "always wanted the best for Spain and for the Crown."

His wife of 58 years, Sofía, the former queen consort who was born Princess Sophia of Greece and Denmark, is not with him. Despite a united front for the cameras and Sofía's long standing as one of the more popular royals in the country despite her husband's sinking popularity, the romantic part of their relationship is said to have ended years ago. 

The reply to his father's announcement, published alongside Juan Carlos' letter, read, "His Majesty the King has conveyed to His Majesty King Juan Carlos his heartfelt respect and gratitude for his decision. The King wishes to emphasize the historical importance that his father's reign represents and the legacy of political and institutional work of service to Spain and to democracy. At the same time, he wants to reaffirm the principles and values on which those things are based, within the framework of our Constitution and the rest of the legal system."

Carlos Alvarez/Getty Images

Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, a member of the Socialist Party, stated at a news conference last month following the ex-king's departure, "The government and I completely respect the decision of the royal palace to distance itself from the questionable and reprehensible conduct of a member of the royal family."

An online petition demanding a name change for King Juan Carlos University in Madrid charged that "corruption cases surrounding the Royal Family keep appearing, torpedoing the image of a monarchy that had been presented to us as 'wholesome' and 'humble.'" A park in the suburb of Pinto quickly moved to change its name and remove a statue of the tarnished former leader,  Deputy Mayor Lola Rodriguez telling Reuters, "We considered [the park] should not carry a name that is allegedly associated with dishonesty and with corruption."

She added, "It is true that he has not been judged, but we believe that he is not going to be judged, so waiting for a trial to take place would have been a little absurd."

But the country's justice system has proved is not afraid to go after the big targets.

Regarding those embezzlement allegations mentioned earlier, in 2016 Princess Cristina became the first member of Spain's royal family to ever go on trial when she and Urdangarin (her husband of 23 years, fired from the Spanish royals' version of the Firm when her dad was still in charge), as well as a number of his business partners, were charged with a litany of financial crimes.

Emilio Morenatti/AP/Shutterstock

In February 2017, Cristina, who had maintained that she didn't know what her husband was up to, was found not guilty, but was fined more than $316,000 for corporate obligations related to their business holdings. She remains sixth in line to the throne, but has been cut off financially from the royal household and was stripped of her Duchess of Parma title.

Urdangarin, however, was convicted of fraud, document falsification, tax evasion and influence peddling and sentenced to six years and three months in prison—far less than prosecutors had sought, but not nothing. Under Spanish law he was allowed to choose where he served his sentence, and he chose Brieva, a women's prison that is said to have four cells reserved for male inmates.

Watch: Meghan Markle Says "It's Good to Be Home" After Royal Exit

After having his sentence reduced on appeal, Urdangarin began serving what was to be a five-year, 10-month stay at Brieva in June 2018. Last September he was allowed to leave for the first time, part of a two-day-a-week volunteer program at a center for intellectually disabled adults.

When their legal troubles began, he and Cristina had been living in Switzerland with their four children.

In leaving the country, it's possible that Juan Carlos hasn't forgotten his own words, having lost immunity from prosecution once he stepped down from the throne.

As the former king once said in his now frequently quoted Christmas address from 2011, the year prosecutors first started investigating his daughter's husband, Spanish law "is the same for everyone." 

Latest News