Juan Carlos abdicates: a rather sudden conclusion to the reign in Spain

The other day, I was sitting enjoying a cool drink in one of the great squares of Europe, the Plaza Mayor in Salamanca, with its 88 arches and 274 ironwork balconies surrounding the wide granite space fringed with café tables in the hot spring sunshine. The café outside which I sat was the Novelty, which had been the daily resort of Miguel de Unamuno, author of The Tragic Sense of Life.

From the balcony above my right ear he had proclaimed the Republic in 1931. He was lucky enough to die in his bed on the last day of 1936, having declared the Civil War that broke out in that year “an epidemic of madness”. Its wounds are still raw today. Above my left ear, among the series of cartouches between the arches, which commemorate in bas-relief the monarchs of Spain, hung a silhouette of Franco, captioned “Caudillo de España” (Leader of Spain). I was surprised to see that the black paint that had been smeared over the dictator’s upper lip had been cleaned off. Indeed, I was a little surprised to see the roundel still there, since in 2007 a so-called Law of Historical Memory had ordered the removal of all “shields, badges, plaques and other objects that commemorate and praise the military uprising” against the Republic in 1936.

To the throne of such a divided polity King Juan Carlos acceded in 1975, nearly 40 years ago. Now he is to abdicate. “My son embodies stability,” was the banner headline on the website of ABC, the conservative daily. They are words that Juan Carlos’s father, the Infante Juan, might have uttered. He never came to the throne, though he did achieve a roundel of his own in the Plaza Mayor of Salamanca.

The decision that Juan Carlos should succeed was Franco’s. It is generally agreed that the King made a good job of presiding over the reintroduction of democracy after Franco’s death. His status was sealed by his reaction to a traditionalist coup attempt on February 23 1981. As the plotters occupied the Cortes, he appeared on television at a quarter past one in the morning, dressed in the uniform of the Captain General, and declared in suitably Baroque but unequivocal language: “The Crown, the symbol of the permanence and unity of the nation, cannot tolerate actions or attitudes in any form by people attempting by force to interrupt the democratic process.”

You still meet people today who say conspiratorially that they know what really went on that day, but the King’s intervention undoubtedly cemented the return to democracy – and his own position.

The King of Spain is a proper king, with all the historical, heraldic, ceremonial and religious antecedents that the keenest monarchist could desire. (Our Queen is one of the 20 members of the Order of the Golden Fleece, the Spanish equivalent of the Garter.) He is on kissing terms with our Queen, being a cousin. His grandmother, Queen Ena, was Victoria’s grand-daughter. His wife, Queen Sofia, is also related to the British Royal family, and to those of Greece and formerly of Russia, not to mention Denmark. Like our own Queen, he is related to Mohammed, though little is made of that.

If royalty has a magic about it, Juan Carlos shares it. Among the less plausible titles he inherited were King of the Two Sicilies and King of Jerusalem. Pictures of the King and Queen hang in formal places such as town halls, police stations and the Paradores de Turismo, the nationalised chain of historic hotels.

Though it will not do to set much store by folk memory, there is, in Spanish literary tradition, an element of expecting the king to put right the injustices perpetrated by lesser authorities. That’s what happens in Peribáñez and the Comendador of Ocaña, a play by Lope de Vega. The peasant hero, betrayed by the wicked local Comendador, is finally restored to fortune and honour by the king, and the queen gives his faithful wife four of her own fine dresses.

Hand-me-down clothes would not quite console the Spanish people in their continuing economic crisis (with long-term unemployment of 250,000 in 2007 and 1.27 million today, and youth unemployment nudging 50 per cent). But Juan Carlos has made efforts to say that he feels their pain. He also filled the same sort of role that we would expect of our Queen when terrorists killed 191 people at Madrid’s Atocha station on March 11 2004, which Spaniards refer to as 11-M, echoing September 11 2001. “Terrorism will never achieve its objectives,” he said, “nor break our faith in democracy and our firm hope for the future of Spain.”

Calls came for his abdication not over the economic crisis (for which, as a constitutional monarch, he could hardly be blamed) but over his elephant-shooting expedition to Botswana in 2012. Spain, like Britain, is a nation of animal lovers. (Never mind bullfighting; they might say tu quoque with regard to foxhunting.) Juan Carlos managed at the same time to break his hip. A year later he had another hip operation. In 2010 he had a tumour removed from a lung. He was beginning to look less fitted for the stock royal engagements of opening worthwhile projects (such as an escalator up the rocky sides of the city of Toledo) and shaking hands.

The monarchy still retained its popularity, except, of course, among those who disliked it. At the same time, the Spanish royal family had become material for a culture of celebrity, in much the same way as in Britain. Remember that ¡Hola! was a Spanish invention (dating from 1944). Hello! first came out in 1988. The Spanish anni horribiles have been not much worse than those of British royalty. The King’s eldest daughter, the Duchess of Lugo, is divorced; his second daughter, the Duchess of Palma, married to a handball player, is facing tax-fraud and money-laundering charges.

The heir, Felipe, Prince of Asturias (like Wales, green, mountainous, damp and given to coalmining and socialism), has fewer public flaws. He is married to a former television journalist who had been married civilly and divorced. The nation was glued to the royal wedding on television in 2003. It is in Felipe’s favour that Juan Carlos is abdicating.

Perhaps abdicating under the Conservative government of the Popular Party is easier than under the Socialists, who might win the elections in 2015. But why abdicate at all?

There is a notably successful precedent. The Emperor Charles V (reckoned King Charles I of Spain), the most powerful monarch in the world, abdicated in 1555 in favour of another Felipe, whom we call Philip II (the husband of Mary Tudor). It was a remarkable act. While Philip II was to build the vast granite monastery and palace of El Escorial, his father in retirement built himself a modest house in the mountains.

Tourists can still see Charles’s house at Yuste, near Plasencia, on the slope of the sierra above the fertile vale of La Vera, where they grow the cherries that are in British shops at the moment. The house, among the trees and nightingales, stands by a little formal pond, above which a study for the king was constructed with a projecting wall of windows that could be opened, shut or shuttered as the sun and wind dictated.

In this room hung an Ecce Homo, a picture of the suffering Jesus, by Titian, for Charles’s thoughts were turning to his final exile from the world. From his bed the former Emperor could see through a shuttered window the altar of the adjoining church. He died in 1558.

King Juan Carlos is not known for great piety, though he has followed the conventions of the religion promoted by his predecessors on the thrones of Aragon and Castile, Ferdinand and Isabella, who were called “Catholic Kings” by the pope in much the same way that Henry VIII was called “Defender of the Faith”.

Today, even among popes, abdication has become the nobler path, since Benedict XVI resigned in 2013. Among monarchs it is becoming habitual: Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands abdicated last year (as her mother had before her) and Albert II of Belgium followed suit 11 weeks later. For the Queen of the United Kingdom, her God-given calling is seen as a life-long duty, as she has often made clear. To achieve it, she will need the blessings of good fortune, or providence.

Christopher Howse writes about the world’s faiths, especially Christianity.

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