TANTRUMS & TIARAS:
the rift inside the Spanish royal family
The Zarzuela Palace, an ornate, palm-fringed pile in the hills outside Madrid, is billed as the world’s largest royal residence, but, as things stand, it may not be large enough. Living within it are two queens at war, and the power struggle between them may determine the future of Spain’s embattled monarchy.
In a wing of the main building sits the much loved 79-year-old Queen Sofía, wife of former King Juan Carlos, who abdicated four years ago. Related by blood or marriage to virtually every noble house in Europe, Sofía is devoutly religious and a staunch defender of traditional royal ways.
Down below, in a spacious, terracotta-roofed villa, known as the Prince’s Pavilion, lives her commoner daughter-in-law, Queen Letizia, 45, a vivacious former TV reporter, whose husband, King Felipe VI, took over the throne when his father stepped down.
Letizia has been a divisive figure almost since she arrived on the royal scene 14 years ago. While many Spaniards welcomed her as a breath of fresh air, and admired her smart, energetic style, stories began to circulate – supposedly spread by disenchanted courtiers – of her bossiness, obstinacy and volcanic temper.
Still, there was little to suggest that Sofía was among Letizia’s detractors – until the feud between the pair burst spectacularly into public view.
After an Easter Sunday church service this year on the Mediterranean island of Majorca, Sofía put her arms around her granddaughters, Princess Leonor, 12, and Princess Sofia, 11, to pose for a seemingly innocent photograph. Letizia, the girls’ mother, who had been hovering close by, abruptly stepped in, blocking the shot, and pushing Sofía’s arm off her eldest daughter’s shoulder. An anxiouslooking King Felipe, 50, then stepped in to calm things down, while Juan Carlos looked on in astonishment.
A video of the episode went viral, triggering a nationwide media frenzy and demands from politicians and commentators to know what was going on inside the royal family. The answers have not been reassuring.
“There are serious tensions between Letizia and her husband’s family, which go back a long way and are getting worse,” says Paola Sandoval, president of the Foreign Press Association. “Although they all live together in the palace, relations are very bad and Sofía does not see much of her grandchildren. We can’t know everything, but everyone has been shocked by Letizia’s behaviour.”
Prominent royal commentator
Jaime Penafiel, a long-time critic of Letizia, goes further. “This woman doesn’t know how to control herself,” he says. “The best thing Felipe can do is divorce her.”
If anything, the crisis has been made worse by the royal family’s clumsy attempts to pretend there isn’t one. The two queens have been cajoled into awkward shared photo-calls, and announcements made about joint activities they will undertake. At a dinner last month, Letizia wore a diamond tiara loaned to her by
Sofía, a gesture portrayed as a peace offering. Few are fooled, and the picture that is emerging is of an
800-year-old dynasty in danger of tearing itself apart.
It wasn’t meant to be this way. When Juan Carlos was persuaded to step down in June 2014, his eldest son promised a new beginning for a monarchy that appeared to have lost its way.
Officially, Juan Carlos abdicated on the grounds of ill-health but, in reality, his presence on the throne had become an embarrassment. A generation of his subjects had grown up with stories of the King’s high living, serial womanising and secret fortunes stashed in overseas bank accounts, but while the sun shone and the Spanish economy boomed, no one made too much fuss.
The economic crash of 2008 changed all that, re-energising the country’s anti-monarchist movement, and eroding the traditional deference shown to the royals by the media and politicians. Huge protest rallies around the country heard angry calls for an end to the “old order”, with the monarchy being clearly identified as part of the problem. As the royal family floundered around for a fix, it settled on the glamorous figure of Letizia Ortiz.
Beautiful, clever and from relatively humble roots, Letizia seemed to be the kind of “new face” the ancient House of Bourbon needed. Her father, José, was a journalist, her mother, Paloma, a nurse, and after going to school in the depressed northern steel town of Oviedo, she landed a place at Complutense University of Madrid, followed by a job at a TV station. When a brief 1998 marriage to a schoolteacher ended in divorce, Letizia turned her formidable energies to her career, becoming a star news presenter and household name. In 2002, while covering an oil tanker disaster in northern Spain, she met Felipe, who had flown in to offer support, and a discreet romance began.
A former Olympic sailor, whose previous girlfriends included a lingerie model and an American law student, the Crown Prince was seen as a slightly dull, dutiful type, unlike his raffish father, who, according to one well-sourced biography, had tried to seduce Diana, Princess of Wales, during a Mediterranean cruise. Felipe seemed to have little in common with Letizia, either, but the romance blossomed and in 2004 they were married in Madrid’s main cathedral, with Letizia resplendent in a flowing
white gown and bejewelled headpiece.
From the start, the new Crown Princess had her detractors. No Spanish heir in history had married a commoner, let alone a divorced one, and the powerful Catholic establishment didn’t conceal its distaste. One of her cousins, David Rocasolano, wrote an unflattering book about her, and a few former work colleagues twisted the knife, portraying her as haughty and difficult. “Letizia is a very smart woman,” wrote one. “She wants to be the best, the smartest, the most stylish. This is why no one can stand her.”
One person who rallied to Letizia’s side was Sofía. It wasn’t entirely easy for the Queen, given her own religious leanings, but according to Pilar Urbano, a prominent royal author: “She understood the benefits Letizia could bring to the royal family, and, of course, she wanted the best for her son. Ideally, she would have preferred him to marry someone else, but she accepted the situation, and really put herself out to help.”
Letizia appears to have appreciated these early overtures. In a TV interview, shortly after her marriage, she took care to lavish praise on ‘La Doña’, as Sofía is known, “who has shown me so much love, and sets us all such a priceless example.”
The new Crown Princess, though, made it clear that she had no intention of being simply a pretty face at court, and her hard-headed analysis of the royal family’s predicament was hard to refute. After enjoying a long period of popularity, she argued, Juan Carlos and his court had come to believe their own publicity, and had lost touch with the public. They needed, she said, “to get closer to the streets”.
Letizia, whose first daughter was born a year after her marriage, made a point of being photographed in outfits from chainstores and buying her own groceries at supermarkets. Drawing on her journalistic smarts, she ensured that in exchange for co-operation with glossy magazines, the relative simplicity of her lifestyle inside the “cosy”, 14-room pavilion wing of the palace was stressed.
Nearby, in her somewhat grander quarters, Sofía stuck to couture and pearls, and, say observers, began to wonder what was going on beneath her windows.
“Coming from outside and understanding the public mood, and being at that time very popular, gave Letizia a lot of influence,” says Pilar. “Maybe she didn’t use it as well as she could have but, to be fair, she saw that things were headed for a crunch.”
The crunch came in 2012, when a private “safari” undertaken by Juan Carlos ended in an unseemly farce, with the king falling over a tree stump, breaking his hip, and having to be flown home from Botswana in a private jet; it and the trip funded by a Saudi Arabian businessman. It quickly emerged that the king had been accompanied on his jungle jollies by an exotic Monte Carlo-based, German aristocrat, Princess Corinna zu Sayn-Wittgenstein, who, for some time, had been rumoured to be his mistress, and that the adventure had cost $100,000 a head, twice the annual wage of the average Spaniard.
The resulting uproar produced
“She wants to be the best, the smartest, the most stylish. That is why no one can stand her.”
both an unprecedented public apology from the Zarzuela Palace, and demands in the Spanish parliament and media for the king to step down. Two years later, he reluctantly obliged.
But, as Felipe and his wife have been discovering ever since, the “old order” hasn’t entirely gone away. Many courtiers retain a loyalty and affection towards the old king and queen, and have been outraged by what Juan Carlos himself sees as an attempt to “airbrush” him out of the new-look monarchy largely devised by Letizia.
“He is being deliberately shunted aside and humiliated,” says Jaime Penafiel. “Last year was the 40th anniversary of Spain’s return to democracy (after the death of military dictator General Francisco Franco), and he was not even invited to the celebrations. These were historic events he played an important part in, and they didn’t want him to be there.”
Whatever the complications of her 56-year marriage, Sofía, too, remains fiercely loyal to her husband. But her feud with Letizia goes beyond protocol. Another issue, say sources, is Sofía’s belief that she is being kept away from her granddaughters.
Earlier this year, the respected Spanish newspaper El Pais gave a poignant account of Sofía’s sense of hurt. While once the old queen would regularly spend afternoons with Leonor and Sofía, it claimed, she is now told that her visits are “not convenient for the girls’ schedules”. By contrast, Letizia’s mother is often at the pavilion, and routinely looks after the young princesses when the royal couple are away. According to the newspaper, Felipe has tried to intervene on Sofía’s behalf, but is reluctant to go against his wife’s wishes.
“In the palace,” says El Pais, “the deterioration of relations between the two families is evident. There are now two realities – the smiling faces the public sees in photographs, and the domestic situation.”
At Easter, those two realities painfully collided. “It all came out,” says Pilar. “The poor queen feels she doesn’t have enough access to her grandchildren and wants a photo, and Letizia goes nuts.”
The falling out between the two queens could scarcely have come at a worse time. Felipe’s attempts to restore respectability have been torpedoed by a series of embarrassing scandals, including the jailing of his brother-in-law, the 50-year-old Duke of Palma, on tax evasion and moneylaundering charges. At the same time, the king has been struggling to present himself as a figure of national unity after Catalonia, Spain’s richest province, voted for independence.
As pundits are gleefully pointing out, this isn’t so easy when your own family is at war. In a bid to lighten the mood, a Spanish clothing firm has begun producing a line of “Team Sofía” or “Team Letizia” T-shirts, allowing wearers to show which of the queens they support.
Sales figures show that 90 per cent of buyers are backing Sofía. Which may lighten the mood in only one part of the palace.
CLOCKWISE FROM ABOVE: The main wing of the Zarzuela Palace; Letizia and Felipe’s 2012 wedding; Letizia in her role as a TV newsreader. OPPOSITE: Felipe’s 2014 coronation.
ABOVE: Eyeing the competition – Letizia and Sofía in 2012, when Juan Carlos was still on the throne. BELOW: At the ill-fated Easter mass, when tensions bolied over.