Juan Carlos spent his early years in Italy and came to Spain in 1947 to continue his studies. After completing his secondary education in 1955, he began his military training and entered the General Military Academy at Zaragoza. Later, he attended the naval Military School, the General Academy of the Air, and finished his tertiary education at the University of Madrid. In 1962, Juan Carlos married Princess Sophia of Greece in Athens, daughter of King Paul. The couple had two daughters and a son together: Elena, Cristina, and Felipe. Due to Franco's declining health, Juan Carlos first began periodically acting as Spain's head of state in the summer of 1974. Franco died in November the following year and Juan Carlos became king on 22 November 1975, two days after Franco's death, the first reigning monarch since 1931; although his exiled father did not formally renounce his claims to the throne in favor of his son until 1977.
Expected to continue Franco's legacy, Juan Carlos, however, soon after his accession introduced reforms to dismantle the Francoist regime and begin the Spanish transition to democracy. This led to the approval of the Spanish Constitution of 1978 in a referendum, which re-established a constitutional monarchy. In 1981, Juan Carlos played a major role in preventing a coup that attempted to revert Spain to Francoist government in the King's name. In 2008, he was considered the most popular leader in all Ibero-America. Hailed for his role in Spain's transition to democracy, the King and the monarchy's reputation began to suffer after controversies surrounding his family arose, exacerbated by an elephant-hunting trip he undertook during a time of financial crisis in Spain. In 2014, Juan Carlos, citing personal reasons, abdicated in favour of his son, who acceded the throne as Felipe VI.
Juan Carlos was born to Infante Juan, Count of Barcelona and Princess María Mercedes of Bourbon-Two Sicilies in Rome, Italy, where his grandfather, King Alfonso XIII of Spain, and other members of the Spanish royal family lived in exile following the proclamation of the Second Spanish Republic in 1931. He was baptized as Juan Carlos Alfonso Víctor María de Borbón y Borbón-Dos Sicilias. He was given the name Juan Carlos after his father and maternal grandfather, Prince Carlos of Bourbon-Two Sicilies.
His early life was dictated largely by the political concerns of his father and General Franco. He moved to Spain in 1948 to be educated there after his father persuaded Franco to allow it. He began his studies in San Sebastián and finished them in 1954 at the San Isidro Institute in Madrid. He then joined the army, doing his officer training from 1955 to 1957 at the Military Academy of Zaragoza.
Juan Carlos has two sisters: Infanta Pilar, Duchess of Badajoz (born 1936); and Infanta Margarita, Duchess of Soria (born 1939). He also had a younger brother, Alfonso.
On the evening of Holy Thursday, 29 March 1956, Juan Carlos's younger brother Alfonso died in a gun accident at the family's home Villa Giralda in Estoril, Portugal. The Spanish Embassy in Portugal then issued the following official communiqué:
Whilst His Highness Prince Alfonso was cleaning a revolver last evening with his brother, a shot was fired hitting his forehead and killing him in a few minutes. The accident took place at 20.30 hours, after the Infante's return from the Maundy Thursday religious service, during which he had received holy communion.
Alfonso had won a local junior golf tournament earlier in the day, then went to evening Mass and rushed up to the room to see Juan Carlos who had come home for the Easter holidays from military school. It is alleged that Juan Carlos began playing with a gun that had apparently been given to Alfonso by General Franco. Rumors appeared in newspapers that the gun had actually been held by Juan Carlos at the moment the shot was fired.
As they were alone in the room, it is unclear how Alfonso was shot, but according to Josefina Carolo, dressmaker to Juan Carlos's mother, Juan Carlos pointed the pistol at Alfonso and pulled the trigger, unaware that it was loaded. Bernardo Arnoso, a Portuguese friend of Juan Carlos, also said that Juan Carlos fired the pistol not knowing that it was loaded, and adding that the bullet ricocheted off a wall, hitting Alfonso in the face. Helena Matheopoulos, a Greek author who spoke with Juan Carlos's sister Pilar, said that Alfonso had been out of the room and when he returned and pushed the door open, the door knocked Juan Carlos in the arm, causing him to fire the pistol.
In 1957, Juan Carlos spent a year in the naval school at Marín, Pontevedra, and another in the Air Force school in San Javier in Murcia. In 1960–61, he studied Law, International Political Economy and Public Finance at Complutense University. He then went to live in the Palace of Zarzuela and began carrying out official engagements.
The dictatorial regime of Francisco Franco came to power during the Spanish Civil War, which pitted a government of democrats, anarchists, socialists, and communists, supported by the Soviet Union and international volunteers, against a rebellion of conservatives, monarchists, nationalists, and fascists, supported by both Hitler and Mussolini, with the rebels ultimately winning. Franco's authoritarian government remained dominant in Spain until the 1960s. With Franco's increasing age, left-wing protests increased, while at the same time, the far right factions demanded the return of a hardline absolute monarchy. At the time, the heir to the throne of Spain was Juan de Borbón (Count of Barcelona), the son of the late Alfonso XIII. However, General Franco viewed him with extreme suspicion, believing him to be a liberal who was opposed to his regime.
Juan Carlos's first cousin Alfonso, Duke of Anjou and Cádiz was also briefly considered as a candidate. Alfonso was known to be an ardent Francoist and would marry Franco's granddaughter, Doña María del Carmen Martínez-Bordiú y Franco in 1972.
Ultimately, Franco decided to skip a generation and name Juan de Borbón's son, Prince Juan Carlos, as his personal successor. Franco hoped the young prince could be groomed to take over the nation while still maintaining the ultraconservative nature of his regime. In 1969, Juan Carlos was officially designated heir-apparent and was given the new title of Prince of Spain (not the traditional Prince of Asturias). As a condition of being named heir-apparent, he was required to swear loyalty to Franco's Movimiento Nacional, which he did with little outward hesitation. His choice was ratified by the Spanish parliament on 22 July 1969.
Juan Carlos met and consulted Franco many times while heir apparent and often took part in official and ceremonial state functions, standing alongside the dictator, much to the anger of hardline republicans and more moderate liberals, who hoped that Franco's death would bring in an era of reform. During 1969–1975, Juan Carlos publicly supported Franco's regime. Although Franco's health worsened during those years, whenever he did appear in public, from state dinners to military parades, it was in Juan Carlos's company. Juan Carlos continued to praise Franco and his government for the economic growth and positive changes in Spain. However, as the years progressed, Juan Carlos began meeting secretly with political opposition leaders and exiles, who were fighting to bring liberal reform to the country. He also had secret conversations with his father over the telephone. Franco, for his part, remained largely oblivious to the prince's actions and denied allegations from his ministers and advisors that Juan Carlos was in any way disloyal to his vision of the regime.
During periods of Franco's temporary incapacity in 1974 and 1975, Juan Carlos was acting head of state. On 30 October 1975, Franco gave full control to Juan Carlos; he died three weeks later, on 20 November. On 22 November, two days after Franco's death, the Cortes Generales proclaimed Juan Carlos King of Spain. In his address to the Cortes, Juan Carlos spoke of three factors: historical tradition, national laws, and the will of the people, and in so doing referred to a process dating back to the Civil War of 1936–39. On 27 November, a Mass of the Holy Spirit was celebrated in the church of San Jerónimo el Real in Madrid to inaugurate his reign. He opted not to call himself Juan III or Carlos V, but Juan Carlos I. Juan Carlos is reported to have personally told Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, who had traveled to Spain for Franco's funeral, to not attend his coronation.
Juan Carlos's accession met with relatively little parliamentary opposition. Some members of the Movimiento Nacional voted against recognising him, and more against the 1976 Law for Political Reform. But even most Movimiento members supported both measures. Juan Carlos quickly instituted reforms, to the great displeasure of Falangist and conservative (monarchist) elements, especially in the military, who had expected him to maintain the authoritarian state. In July 1976, Juan Carlos dismissed prime minister Carlos Arias Navarro, who had been attempting to continue Francoist policies in the face of the king's attempts at democratisation. He instead appointed Adolfo Suárez, a former leader of the Movimiento Nacional, as prime minister, who would go on to win the following year's election and become the first democratically elected leader of the new regime.
On 20 May 1977, the leader of the only recently legalized Spanish Socialist Workers' Party (PSOE), Felipe González, accompanied by Javier Solana, visited Juan Carlos in the Zarzuela Palace. The event represented a key endorsement of the monarchy from Spain's political left, who had been historically republican. Left-wing support for the monarchy grew when the Communist Party of Spain was legalized shortly thereafter, a move Juan Carlos had pressed for, despite enormous right-wing military opposition at that time, during the Cold War.
On 15 June 1977, Spain held its first post-Franco democratic elections. In 1978, the government promulgated a new constitution that acknowledged Juan Carlos as rightful heir of the Spanish dynasty and king; specifically, Title II, Section 57 asserted Juan Carlos's right to the throne of Spain by dynastic succession in the Bourbon tradition, as "the legitimate heir of the historic dynasty" rather than as the designated successor of Franco. The Constitution was passed by the democratically elected Constituent Cortes, ratified by the people in a referendum (6 December) and then signed into law by the King before a solemn meeting of the Cortes.
Further legitimacy was restored to Juan Carlos's position on 14 May 1977, when his father (whom many monarchists had recognized as the legitimate, exiled King of Spain during the Franco era) formally renounced his claim to the throne and recognized his son as the sole head of the Spanish Royal House, transferring to him the historical heritage of the Spanish monarchy, thus making Juan Carlos both de facto and de jure king in the eyes of the traditional monarchists.
There was an attempted military coup, known as 23-F, on 23 February 1981, when the Cortes were seized by members of the Guardia Civil in the parliamentary chamber. During the coup, the King, in the uniform of the Captain-General of the Spanish armed forces, gave a public television broadcast calling for unambiguous support for the legitimate democratic government. The broadcast is believed to have been a major factor in foiling the coup. The coup leaders had promised many of their potential supporters that they were acting in the King's name and with his approval, but were unable to demonstrate either, and the broadcast – coming just after midnight on the night of the coup – definitively showed the King's opposition to the coup makers.
When Juan Carlos became king, Communist leader Santiago Carrillo nicknamed him Juan Carlos the Brief, predicting that the monarchy would soon be swept away with the other remnants of the Franco era. After the collapse of the attempted coup, however, in an emotional statement, Carrillo remarked: "Today, we are all monarchists." Public support for the monarchy among democrats and leftists before 1981 had been limited; following the king's handling of the coup it increased significantly.
The victory of the PSOE in 1982 under González marked the effective end of the King's active involvement in Spanish politics. González would govern for over a decade, and his administration helped consolidate Spanish democracy and thus maintained the stability of the nation.
On paper, Juan Carlos retained fairly extensive reserve powers. He was the guardian of the constitution, and was responsible for ensuring that it was obeyed. In practice, since the passage of the Constitution (and especially since 1982) he took a mostly non-partisan and representative role, acting almost entirely on the advice of the government. However, he commanded great moral authority as an essential symbol of the country's unity.
Under the constitution, the King has immunity from prosecution in matters relating to his official duties. This is so because every act of the King as such (and not as a citizen) needs to be undersigned by a government official, thus making the undersigner responsible instead of the king. The honour of the Royal Family is specifically protected from insult by the Spanish Penal Code. Under this protection, Basque independentist Arnaldo Otegi and cartoonists from El Jueves were tried and punished.
The King gives an annual speech to the nation on Christmas Eve. He is the commander-in-chief of the Spanish armed forces.
In July 2000, Juan Carlos was the target of an enraged protester when former priest Juan María Fernández y Krohn, who had once attacked Pope John Paul II, breached security and attempted to approach the king.
When the media asked Juan Carlos in 2005 if he would endorse the bill legalising same-sex marriage that was then being debated in the Cortes Generales, he answered "Soy el Rey de España y no el de Bélgica" ("I am the King of Spain, not of Belgium") – a reference to King Baudouin I of Belgium, who had refused to sign the Belgian law legalising abortion. The King gave his Royal Assent to Law 13/2005 on 1 July 2005; the law legalising same-sex marriage was gazetted in the Boletín Oficial del Estado on 2 July, and came into effect on 3 July.
According to a poll in the newspaper El Mundo in November 2005, 77.5% of Spaniards thought Juan Carlos was "good or very good", 15.4% "not so good", and only 7.1% "bad or very bad". Even so, the issue of the monarchy re-emerged on 28 September 2007 as photos of the king were burnt in public in Catalonia by small groups of protesters wanting the restoration of the Republic.
In November 2007, at the Ibero-American Summit in Santiago de Chile, during a heated exchange, Juan Carlos interrupted Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, saying, "¿Por qué no te callas?" ("Why don't you shut up?"). Chávez had been interrupting the Spanish Prime Minister, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, while the latter was defending his predecessor and political opponent, José María Aznar, after Chávez had referred to Aznar as a fascist and "less human than snakes". The King shortly afterwards left the hall when President Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua accused Spain of intervention in his country's elections and complained about some Spanish energy companies working in Nicaragua. This was an unprecedented diplomatic incident and a rare display of public anger by the King.
In April 2012, Juan Carlos faced criticism for making an elephant-hunting trip in Botswana. Spaniards found out about the trip only after the King injured himself and a special aircraft was sent to bring him home. Spanish officials stated that the expenses of the trip were not paid by taxpayers or by the palace, but by Mohamed Eyad Kayali, a businessman of Syrian origin. Cayo Lara Moya of the United Left party said the king's trip "demonstrated a lack of ethics and respect toward many people in this country who are suffering a lot" while Tomas Gomez of the Socialist party said Juan Carlos should choose between "public responsibilities or an abdication". In April 2012, Spain's unemployment was at 23 percent and nearly 50 percent for young workers. El País estimated the total cost of a hunting trip at 44,000 euros, about twice the average annual salary in Spain. A petition called for the king to resign from his position as honorary president of the Spanish branch of the World Wide Fund for Nature. The WWF itself responded by asking for an interview with the King to resolve the situation. In July 2012, WWF-Spain held a meeting in Madrid and decided with 226 votes to 13 to remove the king from the honorary presidency. He later apologised for the hunting trip.
Juan Carlos was married in Athens at the Church of Saint Dennis on 14 May 1962, to Princess Sophia of Greece and Denmark, daughter of King Paul of Greece. She converted from her Greek Orthodox religion to Roman Catholicism. Also in 1962, a Roman Catholic wedding was performed in the Pauline Chapel the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome.
They have two daughters and one son:Infanta Elena, Duchess of Lugo (born 20 December 1963)Infanta Cristina (born 13 June 1965)Felipe, Prince of Asturias (born 30 January 1968), later King Felipe VI
Juan Carlos is also the alleged illegitimate father of Alberto Sola, born in Barcelona in 1956, and of a Belgian woman, Ingrid Sartiau, who has filed a paternity suit; complete sovereign immunity had prevented the suit prior to his abdication.
In 1972, Juan Carlos, a keen sailor, competed in the Dragon class event at the Olympic Games, finishing 15th. In their summer holidays, the whole family meets in Marivent Palace (Palma de Mallorca) and the Fortuna yacht, where they take part in sailing competitions. The king has manned the Bribón series of yachts. In winter, the family often go skiing in Baqueira-Beret and Candanchú (Pyrenees).
Juan Carlos also hunts bears; in October 2004, he angered environmental activists by killing nine bears, one of which was a pregnant female, in central Romania. It was alleged by the Russian regional authorities that in August 2006 Juan Carlos shot a drunken tame bear (Mitrofan the Bear) during a private hunting trip to Russia; the Office of the Spanish Monarchy denied this claim.
Juan Carlos and Sofía are fluent in several languages, speaking Spanish, English, and French. The King also speaks fluent Portuguese and Italian, and the Queen speaks German and her native Greek.
Juan Carlos is also an amateur radio operator and holds the call sign EA0JC. His custom of incognito motorbike riding has raised urban legends of people finding him on lonely roads. For example, one story tells that a biker out of petrol stranded on a hot sunny day was assisted by a fellow motorcyclist, who returned with a small container of petrol. The good Samaritan, on removing his helmet, turned out to be Juan Carlos.
Juan Carlos is a member of the World Scout Foundation and of the Sons of the American Revolution.
A benign 17-19mm tumour was removed under general anaesthetic from King Juan Carlos’ right lung in an operation carried out in the "Hospital Clínic" of Barcelona in May 2010. The operation followed an annual check-up, and Juan Carlos was not expected to need any further treatment.
In April 2012, the King underwent surgery for a triple fracture of the hip at the San Jose Hospital, Madrid, following a fall on a private elephant-hunting trip to Botswana. He also underwent a hip operation in September 2013 at Madrid's Quirón hospital.
After the King's son-in-law Iñaki Urdangarín was accused of corruption (the "Urdangarín affair"), the King in 2011 for the first time detailed the yearly royal budget of 8.3 million euros, excluding expenses such as the electricity bill, paid by the State.
Spanish news media speculated about the King's future in early 2014, following criticism and family scandal; the King's chief of staff in a briefing denied that the 'abdication option' was being considered. On the morning of 2 June 2014, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy made a televised announcement that the King had told him of his intention to abdicate. Later, the King delivered a televised address and announced that he would abdicate the throne in favour of the Prince of Asturias. Royal officials described the King's choice as a personal decision which he had been contemplating since his 76th birthday at the start of the year. The King reportedly said, "[I] don't want my son to grow old waiting like Prince Charles." As required by the Spanish constitution, any abdication would be settled by means of an organic law. A draft law was passed with 299 in favour, 19 against and 23 abstaining. On 18 June, he signed the organic law passed by parliament several hours before his abdication took effect. Felipe was enthroned on 19 June 2014, and his granddaughter Leonor, became the new Princess of Asturias.
Juan Carlos thus became the fourth European monarch to abdicate in just over a year, following Pope Benedict XVI (28 February 2013), Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands (30 April 2013), and King Albert II of Belgium (21 July 2013).
The Spanish constitution at the time of the abdication did not grant an abdicated monarch the legal immunity of a head of state, but the government was planning to make changes to allow this. Legislation has been passed, although unlike his previous immunity, the new legislation does not completely shield the former sovereign. Juan Carlos must answer to the supreme court, in a similar type of protection afforded to many high-ranking civil servants and politicians in Spain. The legislation stipulates that all outstanding legal matters relating to the former king be suspended and passed "immediately" to the Supreme Court.
The Spanish press gave the announcement a broadly positive reception, but described the moment as an "institutional crisis" and "a very important moment in the history of democratic Spain". Around Spain and in major cities (including London) the news was met by republican celebration and protests, calling for the end of the monarchy.
Catalan leader Artur Mas said that the news of the King's abdication would not slow down the process of independence for Catalonia. Iñigo Urkullu, the President of the Basque government, concluded that the King's reign was "full of light yet also darkness" and said that his successor Felipe should remember that "the Basque Question has not been resolved". Other regional leaders had more positive evaluations of Juan Carlos following his decision to abdicate: Alberto Núñez Feijóo of Galicia called him "the King of Democracy" who "guaranteed the continuation of constitutional monarchy" and Alberto Fabra of the Valencian Community said that Spaniards are proud of their king who had been "at the forefront of protecting our interests inside and outside of our borders".
British Prime Minister David Cameron stated: "I would like to use this opportunity to make a tribute to King Juan Carlos, who has done so much during his reign to aid the successful Spanish transition to democracy, and has been a great friend of the United Kingdom." The President of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, said that Juan Carlos was a "believer in Europeanism and modernity...without whom one could not understand modern Spain".
The Spanish public also gave a broadly positive opinion not only of the abdication but of his reign as a whole. According to a poll taken by El Mundo, 65 percent saw the king's reign as either good or very good, up from 41.3 percent. Overall, 55.7 percent of those polled in the 3–5 June survey by Sigma Dos supported the institution of the monarchy in Spain, up from 49.9 percent when the same question was posed six months prior. 57.5 percent believed the prince could restore the royal family's lost prestige. An overwhelming majority of Spaniards believed the new king, Felipe VI, would make a good monarch and more than three-quarters believed King Juan Carlos had been right to hand over the throne to his son.
In 1969, Juan Carlos was named as General Franco's successor and was given the title of 'Prince of Spain'. Upon the death of Franco in 1975, Juan Carlos acceded to the throne of Spain. The current Spanish constitution refers to the monarch by the simple title "King of Spain". Aside from this title, the constitution allows for the use of other historic titles pertaining to the Spanish monarchy, without specifying them. This was also reiterated by a decree promulgated on 6 November 1987 concerning titles of members of the royal family. Since his abdication in 2014, King Juan Carlos has retained, by courtesy, the title and style of King that he enjoyed during his reign.