For years he was the king who led Spain to democracy and foiled a military coup, but then fled into exile under a cloud of corruption that ruined his royal legacy.
But the 84-year-old, who was instrumental in Spain’s transition to democracy, could soon return home after Spanish prosecutors dropped three investigations into his finances on Wednesday.
He ascended the throne in November 1975 a few days after the death of General Francisco Franco, who named him successor, rising above the father of the young king, Juan de Borbon.
Once crowned, it became clear that he had no intention of extending the late dictator’s despotic rule, establishing a parliamentary monarchy and free elections and acclaiming himself as “King of all Spaniards “.
But after nearly 40 years on the throne, it was scandal that brought him from grace, first forcing him to abdicate in 2014 and six years later to flee to the United Arab Emirates, dogged by allegations of financial corruption.
“Guided by my determination to best serve the Spanish people, their institutions and you as king, I inform you of my decision to exile myself outside of Spain,” he wrote in August 2020, the former hero of democracy turned embarrassment to crown and country.
– ‘Hero who saved democracy’ –
His exile was a bitter irony for the man who was born in exile in Rome on January 5, 1938 and did not arrive in Spain until he was 10 years old.
Despite the family’s exile, Juan Carlos’ father entrusted the boy to Franco in the hope that the throne would one day return to the House of Bourbon.
After school, the young prince underwent several years of military training and was later named Franco’s official heir, in the hope that he would one day continue the dictator’s policies.
But he was to disappoint Franco’s supporters, instead guiding Spain to democracy and eventually using his military position to defend it against an attempted coup in February 1981 when a group of soldiers stormed parliament. , taking lawmakers hostage.
Appearing on television in full military gear in the middle of the night, he ordered the putschists back to their barracks, in a move that cemented his image as a symbol of stability and a “hero who saved democracy”.
The King’s laid-back manner quickly endeared him to the people with his popularity peaking in 1992 during the Barcelona Olympics and the World’s Fair in Seville as the nation turned a blind eye to his myriad deals and shady dealings.
But 20 years later, public esteem will give way to ignominy as a series of financial excesses and irregularities damage his image in the eyes of the public.
– The elephant and the mistress –
It was during the global financial crisis with Spain mired in recession that the public discovered he had taken a luxury elephant hunting trip to Botswana with Corinna Larsen, a German-born entrepreneur with whom he had had a 10-year affair.
The details only emerged after he broke his hip and was taken home for surgery, prompting him to publicly apologize.
But the damage was done, prompting more and more revelations about his lavish lifestyle and how he had amassed a secret fortune abroad, thanks to his close relationships with Gulf monarchs.
Several years after his 2014 abdication, Spanish and Swiss investigators have launched an investigation into the former monarch’s finances, focusing on an alleged payment of $100 million (90 million euros) he allegedly received from Saudi Arabia via an offshore account.
And other investigations followed that tarnished the image of the Spanish monarchy.
As the whiff of scandal intensified, his son King Felipe VI distanced himself from his father, stripping him of his annual palace allowance.
He also renounced any claim on the inheritance he was to receive from his elderly father.
– A passionate hunter –
An avid sportsman with a penchant for hunting, skiing and sailing, Juan Carlos made headlines for other reasons throughout his life, including several incidents involving a firearm.
In 1954, when he was just 18, tragedy struck when he accidentally shot and killed his 14-year-old brother in the forehead while the couple were playing with a gun in Portugal, according to a biography of British historian Paul Preston.
And in 2006, he allegedly shot a drunken circus bear while visiting Russia. And it was his hunting trip to Botswana in 2012 that marked the beginning of the end.
Married to Sophie of Greece and Denmark in 1962, the couple had two daughters before giving birth to Felipe but Spain maintains the eldest son’s right to inherit the throne.