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King of Spain, 1975-2014, who was instrumental in the country's peaceful transition to democracy
Juan Carlos Alfonso Víctor María de Borbón y Borbón-Dos Sicilias was born in Rome, Italy, on January 5, 1938, the son of Juan, Count of Barcelona (popularly known as Don Juan), and Princess María Mercedes of Bourbon-Two Sicilies, and the grandson of King Alfonso XIII. He spent his early years in Italy but was educated in Spain, beginning in 1947, entered the General Military Academy at Zaragoza in 1955, and then attended the Naval School at Marín in Pontevedra, the General Academy of the Air at San Javier in Murcia, and the University of Madrid. He married Princess Sophia of Greece, daughter of King Paul, in Athens on May 14, 1962. The couple had two daughters, Elena and Cristina, and a son, Felipe.
Heir to the Throne
When King Alfonso XIII formally abdicated the throne in 1941 he named his son Don Juan as his successor, but Spain was at the time ruled by General Francisco Franco, who had established a republic. Although Franco abolished the republic and established a representative monarchy in 1947, he remained at the head of the government and the country remained without a ruling monarch.
Spain's transition back to a monarchial government began on January 7, 1969, when Juan Carlos publicly said for the first time that he would accept the throne if offered, despite his father being the true heir. On July 22, 1969, the Cortes (Parliament) passed a law designating Juan Carlos the future King of Spain. Although Franco continued as head of the country, he was from that time on almost always accompanied by Juan Carlos, now Prince of Spain, at official state functions. By 1975 Franco was in poor health, and on October 30 of that year he formally named Juan Carlos as head of state.
King of Spain
Juan Carlos was formally proclaimed King of Spain on November 22, 1975, two days after the death of General Franco. Although he had previously sworn loyalty to Franco's National Movement as a condition of being named heir apparent, the new king immediately began implementing reforms. In July of 1976 he dismissed Prime Minister Carlos Arias Navarro, who was attempting to continue Franco's policies, and replaced him with reformist Adolfo Suárez. Suárez went on to win the 1977 elections, making him the first democratically elected leader of Spain since 1939.
On May 14, 1977, Don Carlos formally renounced his claim to the throne and recognized his son as the sole head of the Spanish Royal House. In 1978, the government promulgated a new constitution that acknowledged Juan Carlos as "the legitimate heir of the historic dynasty" rather than as the designated successor of Franco. The Constitution was ratified by the people in a referendum on December 6, and then signed into law by the King before a solemn meeting of the Cortes.
The most serious threat to the king's government came on February 23, 1981, when members of the Guardia Civil seized the Cortes during an attempted coup. In response, King Juan Carlos, in the uniform of the Captain-General of the Spanish armed forces, gave a public television broadcast calling upon the people to support the democratic government. The speech put him at adds with the military, but it also helped end the crisis.
The Spanish Socialist Workers' Party won control of the government in 1982, after which the king assumed a mostly ceremonial and representative role, with his only official duty being the approval (or refusal to approve) of laws passed by the Cortes.
King Juan Carlos remained popular with most Spaniards until 2011, when his reign was tarnished by a corruption investigation involving Princess Cristina and her husband that shed light on the royal family's finances. His reputation was further tarnished when, the very next year, he spent lavish sums of money on an elephant hunt in Botswana.
On June 2, 2014, King Juan Carlos announced that he would abdicate the throne in favor of his son, saying "[I] don't want my son to grow old waiting like Prince Charles." He signed the organic law passed by Parliament on June 18, and his son was formally crowned King Felipe the following day.
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This page was last updated on October 23, 2017.