Wedding belle

Barely a week after our Mary became the future Queen of Denmark, Spain celebrated its own royal wedding amid much pomp and ceremony. Like Denmark’s king-in-waiting, the next Spanish monarch, Felipe, married a commoner. In a further departure from royal tradition, the new princess had been married before. The marriage of the prince to Letizia Ortiz, formerly a reporter in Iraq and co-presenter of TV Espana’s nightly news program, caught the nation by surprise after a secret courtship.

As if that weren’t sufficient intrigue, Felipe had once before been denied permission to marry the woman of his choice. Back in 1989, Felipe began to date Isabel Satorius, a woman of aristocratic blood whose mother had been twice-divorced. Traditionalists pointed to the Spanish royal family’s historical requirement (more a convention than a written rule, originating in the 18th century) that any future monarch must renounce his right to the throne should he choose to marry a commoner. More importantly at the time, reports circulated that Felipe’s parents, King Juan Carlos I and Queen Sofía, disapproved of the union although their reasons were never made public nor was their opposition officially confirmed. The most informed speculation suggested that Isabel’s divorced mother was the stumbling block. Whatever the reasons, the relationship floundered on the impossibility of its continuation in 1993.

This time around, palace sources suggested that Felipe issued his parents with an ultimatum: let him marry Letizia or he would renounce the throne of Spain.

Even now with the union granted royal blessing and having passed without notable dissent, the couple retain the power to capture the public’s attention. This is partly because after its surprise election in March, the government of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero announced a major departure from traditional royal practice: the first-born child of Felipe and Letizia will be considered the heir to the throne, irrespective of gender.

Aside from such arcane arguments of succession and the right of a future king to choose his partner, there is a serious side to the issue of the monarchy in Spain. Polls consistently show that up to 80 per cent of the Spanish population consider the monarchy to be an anachronism. And yet, among the many Spaniards who consider themselves nominally republican, most don’t pursue anything beyond vague expressions of opinion. An often heard refrain describing the royal family is that ‘they don’t bother anyone’. That’s a lot easier to say in Spain than it is in England, where the royal family represents twice the cost to the public purse than their Spanish counterparts; there is no royal court in Spain beyond the king’s immediate family. Spain also has no tabloid newspapers and other media widely observe the taboo not to intrude into the private lives of the royals, thereby avoiding the scandals which have dogged the Windsors and so tarnished their reputation.

Further, there is a strong sense that the Spanish royal family has proved its worth. The current king’s father was banished from the throne by General Franco and lived out his life in exile. Six years before Franco’s death in 1975, Spain’s dictator anointed Juan Carlos as his successor. In the hands of the young prince, Franco could, it seems, rest assured that his legacy would be protected. Juan Carlos had been groomed from an early age by Franco who chose the prince’s education and acted as his mentor in affairs of state.

When Franco died, Juan Carlos found himself in an invidious position. Presiding over the nation’s transition to democracy, he was deeply mistrusted because of his ties to the former regime. It transpired that the king had been secretly cultivating contacts with the clandestine democratic opposition even before Franco died. A successful transition to democratic rule elevated the king’s reputation but it was not until 1981 that the king won over most of his detractors.

On 23 February of that year, disaffected soldiers seized the fledgling national parliament during a debate which was being broadcast live on national radio. Spaniards listened with horror as gunshots rang out and the broadcast was cut. Tanks rolled onto the streets of Valencia where an army division announced its support for the coup. Spaniards still talk of their dark fears on that day, certain that the dictatorship would soon be returning.

And yet it was also the day when Spaniards would learn the resilience of their young democracy. While the nation fretted and children were kept home from school, King Juan Carlos appeared on national television to deny that the coup leaders had his support and to call for a return to barracks. By his side was the young Felipe.

The king’s orders were obeyed and, since that time, the Spanish monarchy has been viewed by many as the institution which safeguarded democracy in Spain. Although some analysts claim that Juan Carlos did not, in reality, act as decisively or as quickly as he would like to suggest, there is little if any active opposition to the monarchy.

There is, of course, a sense in which the monarchy has also served a hugely symbolic role in recent days. In the aftermath of the 11 March bombings in Madrid, the royals were at the hospitals comforting the sick and grieving, while at the memorial service to honour the dead, the family broke with protocol to greet each of the mourners in person.

The terrible events of March, some analysts have suggested, caused the wedding celebrations to be more muted than normal. But perhaps only a royal wedding could have prompted the headline in the left-leaning El País newspaper on the day of the wedding: ‘Madrid smiles again.’




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