The Scandals That Plagued Spain's King Juan Carlos On The Throne And Beyond

As the old saying goes, "Heavy is the head that wears the crown." Sure, being royalty might come with a lot of responsibility as well as, well, a lot of power–but there has been no shortage of royals using this power to their advantage. As a result, a slew of politically-charged and downright messy scandals have come to light on the world stage. The former king of Spain, Juan Carlos I, once celebrated for transitioning Spain into democracy from dictatorship, is no exception. 

Juan Carlos I came to power in 1975 following the death of Generalissimo Francisco Franco, who led the forces that overthrew Spain's democratic republic during the Spanish Civil War, according to Britannica. For more than 40 years, the Spanish monarchy was stagnant until Franco restored its succession. In 1976, Juan Carlos I became the first reigning Spanish monarch to visit the United States, per CNN, and in 1977, set in motion political reforms that would restore democratic elections in Spain after decades without. 

Juan Carlos may have brought some much needed reform to Spain, but he was also embroiled in scandals that made international headlines.

The beginning of the end

In 2012, King Juan Carlos I took a private vacation to Botswana to hunt for sport. While he was there, he tripped and fell, prompting hip surgery. Spanish media then circulated a photograph of Juan Carlos I posing with a hunted elephant, per The Guardian. Criticism of the king erupted, not just due to the purported extravagance of the safari — Spain faced an economic crisis at the time and the country's unemployment rate reached 23%, per CNN –- but also because the king was honorary president of the World Wildlife Fund. The fund stripped him of his decades-old title and said in a statement that, while the king was within his rights to hunt for sport, the practice is "incompatible" with their values.

In 2015, Juan Carlos I was confronted with a paternity lawsuit. Ingrid Sartiau, a Belgian woman, alleged that the royal and her mother had an affair in 1965, while he was married, resulting in her birth in 1966. The lawsuit came just months after Juan Carlos, then 77, abdicated the throne and passed the crown to his son, King Felipe VI, in 2014, though he still maintained some "institutional functions and appearances," per Reuters. While Spain's Supreme Court initially decided to take on Sartiau's case -– rejecting another paternity case that was brought to the court –- the case was dismissed after the former king's lawyers appealed, per Reuters.

The impact of the king's legacy

After resigning from public life in 2019, King Juan Carlos I was faced with perhaps the most serious allegation of his rule in June 2020. Spain's Supreme Court would investigate a potential instance of international money laundering; Juan Carlos I may have illegally received $100 million from Saudi Arabia through a Swiss bank account in 2008, per The New York Times. The money was speculated to be in connection to a collaborative endeavor between the countries on a high-speed railway in Saudi Arabia, per CNN.

Juan Carlos left Spain soon after, but not before he penned a letter to King Felipe VI that his move was, "a decision I make with sadness, but with great serenity," per CNN. While the allegations were dismissed in early 2022, he now resides in the United Arab Emirates, per The New York Times. 

That hasn't been the end of the Spanish royal family's scandals, though. King Felipe VI — who once participated in the 1992 Olympics – has made an effort to be more transparent regarding royal finances and partially disclosed his wealth earlier this year, per NASDAQ. While his sister, Princess Cristina, was acquitted of tax fraud and evasion charges in 2017 (though her husband, Iñaki Urdangarin, was sentenced to six years in prison), the Spanish monarchy was plainly under scrutiny for shady financial practices, per The Guardian. King Felipe VI cut his father off from royal funds in 2020 and announced he would not accept an inheritance from the former king. Time will tell if history will repeat itself.