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The Count of Barcelona The Life of Don Juan, Infante of Spain (1913-1993)

By Art Beéche

Revered by Spanish monarchists, opposed by his country's right-wing rulers, Don Juan, Count of Barcelona, was the symbol of Spain's millenarian monarchy. Even though he never ruled as king, on his death Don Juan was given a king's funeral. Attended by a large gathering of European royalty, the Count of Barcelona's obsequies were the culmination of a life dedicated to upholding his family's historical legacy. Such was his quiet role in the restoration of the Spanish monarchy, that even though he never ascended to the throne, Don Juan was buried in the King's Pantheon at the Escorial Monastery in the outskirts of Madrid.

Born in 1913 at the Palace of San Ildefonso, the Infante Juan of Spain brought untold joy to his parents. Even though the newborn son had two older brothers, both were affected by physical handicaps. The heir to the throne, Alfonso, Prince of Asturias, suffered from an acute case of hemophilia. His other brother, the Infante Jaime, was hearing impaired. To the delight of King Alfonso XIII and Queen Victoria-Eugenie, Juan was born healthy, strong and without hemophilia. A fourth son would arrive in 1914, but again the royal family was struck by disaster when it was discovered that the newborn, the Infante Gonzalo, was also a sufferer of hemophilia. The appearance of hemophilia among some of Alfonso XII's children had dire consequences in his relationship with Victoria-Eugenia. It also sent the King into a tailspin of irresponsible behavior that led him to abandon the affairs of daily government to questionable characters and dictators. Although Alfonso and Victoria-Eugenia were deeply affected by hemophilia, at least they did not suffer the fate of their Romanov cousins.

Breaking with tradition at the Spanish royal court, Don Juan chose to be a sailor in his father's navy. In 1930 he joined the Naval School at San Fernando. Six months later, the young cadet was forced to drop out when King Alfonso XIII was ousted from the throne and the royal family summarily sent into exile. In April of 1931, Don Juan boarded a Spanish cruiser and sailed . He was not yet eighteen years old.

The political situation within Spain had worsened considerably since the beginning of Alfonso XIII's personal reign in 1902. Between that year and 1923, the young monarch witnessed the inauguration of nineteen different ministries. In the meantime, Alfonso failed to obtain the support of the country's blooming intellectual movement, a group of young talents who the monarch constantly ridiculed. Supporters of the monarchy watched in frustration as the political climate deteriorated and the country risked loosing its few remaining colonies in North Africa. The political parties of the left also abandoned the king for they believed he was the instrument of the old landed aristocracy and, as such, completely ignorant of the needs of his people. Nonetheless, Alfonso XIII's biggest mistake was to legalize the coup d'etat of 1923. The king thought that allowing the armed forces a role in politics would stabilize the country, yet this attempt at strong-man government failed dismally. Once the dictatorship was toppled, the monarchy was blamed for the political fiasco and Alfonso XIII found personally responsible. Within months, the Spanish electorate voted the king out of his throne.

Soon after the fall of the Spanish monarchy, Alfonso XIII sent Don Juan to continue his naval training at the Naval School at Dartmouth, Great Britain. Don Juan served as an officer in the Royal Navy for some time. In 1932 he boarded HMS Enterprise and sailed to the Far East. At he beginning of 1933 Don Juan met his father, Alfonso XIII, in India. The two spent an enjoyable vacation as guests of the British Raj and several Indian potentates. Soon after this furlough from his naval services, Don Juan was summoned by his father.

It was the early Summer of 1933. Having fallen in love with a Cuban commoner, Prince Alfonso of Asturias, Don Juan's eldest brother, renounced his dynastic rights. Less than two weeks later, Don Jaime, Alfonso XIII's second son, follows suit and relinquishes his dynastic rights as well. These solemn acts made Don Juan his father's dynastic heir. To prepare the new Prince of Asturias for his future role, Alfonso XIII sent Don Juan to study at the University of Florence. This period also saw the beginning of the long political education of Don Juan as the heir of the Spanish crown.

In early 1935, the Spanish royal family congregated in Rome to attend the wedding of Infanta Beatriz and Prince Alessandro Torlonia. It was while living in Italy that Don Juan encountered a cousin he had often seen in Spain, Princess Maria de las Mercedes of Bourbon-Two Sicilies. At the same time, many expected Don Juan to marry the youngest daughter of the Italian monarch, Princess Maria of Savoy. However, Don Juan's heart had already been stolen by his cousin Maria de las Mercedes and the Savoy alliance was never given much thought. The couple's wedding took place in Rome on October 12, 1935. Thousands of Spaniards traveled to the Italian capital to witness the marriage of the man they saw as their future and rightful king.


HRH Don Juan, Count of Barcelona (1913-1993)

After a honeymoon that took them around the world, Don Juan and Doña Maria de las Mercedes settled in a small apartment in Rome. Their first child, the Infanta Pilar, was born on July 30, 1936. While Doña Maria was in labor, Don Juan prepared himself to travel to Spain and join the anti-Communist forces fighting in the Spanish civil war. Within days of his daughter's birth, Don Juan is already inside Spain trying to demonstrate his valor and deep love for Spain. The young Infante's military escapade was quickly ended when his identity was discovered. The military men who would rule Spain for the next four decades did not want the last king's son and heir becoming a hero of the civil war. Don Juan continued petitioning the military authorities, General Francisco Franco in particular, to allow him service in the country's armed forces. Franco was in the process of displacing his comrades as the country's undisputed military leader and was not about to allow the Bourbon heir any chance to increase his popularity. Consequently, Don Juan was forced to remain in Rome.

The couple's first son and heir was born on January 5, 1938. His name is Juan Carlos and his future was going to be the restoration of the monarchy in Spain. That same year witnessed the death of Don Juan's oldest brother, Don Alfonso, as a result f a car crash. The couple's third child, the Infanta Margarita, was born in 1939. The happiness caused by the newborn baby was suddenly turned into worry when it was discovered that Margarita was born with a severe optical handicap. It is due to Don Juan and Doña Maria de las Mercedes' great dedication that Margarita, notwithstanding her handicap, was raised as just another child. A second son, Infante Alfonso, was born in 1941.

The year 1939 also witnessed two tremendous political events. In Spain, Franco defeated the republican forces and established his personal dictatorship. In Europe, Hitler invaded Poland and started the Second World War. In Rome, the Spanish royals desperately tried to become a political player in the events unfolding around them. Don Juan approached General Franco and offered his services, only to be politely turned away. That same year also witnessed the deterioration of Alfonso XIII's health. The King of Spain had always suffered from a precarious respiratory system. This ailment was compounded by his fast existence as monarch and the worries caused on him by his family's plight and the future of Spain. On January 15, 1941, King Alfonso XIII abdicated his dynastic rights on Don Juan. Six weeks later the King was dead.

After the death of his father, Don Juan dedicated most of his energies to the restoration of the Spanish monarchy. Although Don Juan had become King of Spain upon his father's abdication, h chose to be known as the Count of Barcelona, which in itself was a sovereign title held by the Spanish crown. He continued contacting Franco and trying to negotiate the Bourbons' return to their throne. General Franco. although himself a monarchist, was untrusting of Don Juan, whom he believed to be too liberal for the good of Spain. Liberal or not though, Don Juan was certainly the most "English-like" of Queen Victoria-Eugenie's sons. He enjoyed the simplicity of his mother's character and English political traditions. Don Juan continuously demonstrated his opposition to the fascist regimes overtaking Central Europe and disrupting the nascent democracies of the Balkan Peninsula. Although supportive of Franco's movement, Don Juan did not want to become the head of a right-wing government. Doing so, he felt, would be following his father's missteps during the 1920's. Don Juan wanted to be the monarch of all the Spaniards, not just of those who had the lineage required to attend the royal court, but also of those who had the guns to keep republicanism at bay.

During the Spanish civil war, Franco and his army received vast amounts of war materiel from the Nazis and Fascist Italy. Although not as virulently right-wing as these two regimes were, Franco's government was filled with followers of European fascism. For these men, any signs of liberalism were sufficient reason to disqualify anyone from ascending the Spanish throne. As the one person who held dynastic legitimacy, the very liberal Don Juan was the target of their vitriol.

Some of Don Juan's advisors, convinced that the Allies would defeat Germany and Italy, asked Don Juan to abandon Rome and move closer to his mother in Switzerland. Believing that this would improve his standing with London and Washington, Don Juan duly settled in Lausanne, from where he continued his political maneuvering to negotiate with Franco while organizing his downfall. Don Juan was convinced that because of Franco's close ties to Hitler and Mussolini, the Allies would overthrow the Spanish dictator after victory over fascism was achieved. It seems that even President Roosevelt assured Don Juan that this was going to be the policy adopted by the United States.

Unfortunately for the monarchist cause, two events precluded Franco's continuation in power after 1945. The first event was the untimely death of President Roosevelt just months before the war ended. The second was the Soviet Union's expansion across Central and Eastern Europe. Not many people expected that the Allies would allow Stalin's forces to overthrow the monarchy in Romania and Bulgaria; that Communist partisans would exile King Peter II of Yugoslavia; and that George II of Greece would be faced with a civil war ignited by Greek Communists. Faced with this unprecedented political coup by Soviet Communism, the Allies were not willing to overthrow Franco and jeopardize Spain. General Franco, aware of the changing political situation, not only made overtures to the Allies but also allowed the United States to open military installations in Spain.

By this time, Don Juan had moved from Switzerland to Portugal where he felt closer to Spain. Franco's survival surprised Don Juan and his followers, most of whom were predicting the dictator's demise. Final word of Franco's renewed international standing was communicated to Don Juan by his cousin Louis, Earl Mountbatten of Burma. Mountbatten clearly explained that Don Juan's cause had lost considerable support when Roosevelt died and after Communism effectively overthrew so many of his royal cousins. Mountbatten also recommended that Don Juan continue his negotiations with Franco.

Once again, Don Juan was forced to approach Franco and arrange for the return of Spain to the monarchical system. Don Juan and Franco met for the first time in August, 1948. The meeting, which lasted for three hours, took place off the Spanish coast on Franco's impressive yacht. At the meeting it was agreed that Don Juan's eldest son, Juan Carlos, was to be educated Spain. Franco wanted to make sure that the monarchy's future heir would receive a thoroughly Spanish education. This would not make Don Juan Carlos a stranger to Spain when the time came to restore the monarchy. Franco also stressed his deep respect for Alfonso XIII and the Spanish monarchy, but failed to agree on a date for the restoration of the Bourbons.

For the next six years Franco and Don Juan continued negotiating the most adequate road for the return of the monarchy. A second meeting was held in 1954 at the country estate of the Count of Ruiseñada, one of Don Juan's supporters. This was the first time in eighteen years that Don Juan had touched Spanish ground. For him, this second meeting with Franco was a very emotional affair. Much ground had been advanced towards the monarchy's restoration; Don Juan Carlos was successfully completing his secondary education surrounded by a group of his future subjects. Don Juan and Franco agreed that Don Juan Carlos would continue his education in Spain and fulfill military service in all the branches of the armed forces. Franco also allowed the monarchists to begin the distribution of monarchist propaganda within Spain, as long as it did not attempt against the dictatorship.

In the meantime, Don Juan and Doña Maria de las Mercedes developed into a strong and loyal couple. While he spent a considerable amount of time preparing the road towards the monarchy's restoration, Doña Maria de las Mercedes proved to be an ideal companion to her exiled husband. She also spent a large amount of time dedicated to the upbringing of the three children who remained at home. It was during 1956 that the Spanish royal family was visited again by tragedy. Don Juan Carlos and Don Alfonso, who had been studying in Spain as well, traveled home to Portugal during Easter vacation. On March 29, 1956, after attending Holy Mass, Don Alfonso died as a result of an accidental gunshot wound. Don Juan received this new trial in regal silence; Doña Maria de las Mercedes was devastated. It would take many years for her to recover from the loss of her youngest son.

By the early 1960's it was becoming increasingly apparent to Don Juan that Franco was not willing to give up power. In fact, in private General Franco prepared his own succession. His choice was not Alfonso XIII's son, but the king's grandson, Don Juan Carlos. Schooled by some of Franco's henchmen and surrounded by scions of Franco's collaborators, Don Juan Carlos was expected to become the inheritor of the fascist tradition and not of the Bourbon royal legacy. Many of Don Juan Carlos' enemies were convinced that the young prince had become a puppet under the control of Franco. Exiled in Portugal, Don Juan witnessed with increasing worries his son's apparent molding into Franco's creature. But how mistaken most were became evident later on.

The year 1962 saw the marriage of Don Juan Carlos to Princess Sophia of Greece, daughter of King Paul I and Queen Frederica. Juan Carlos and Sophia were descendants of two of Queen Victoria's children. Don Juan Carlos was the great-grandson of Princess Beatrice, Queen Victoria's youngest daughter who had married Prince Henry of Battenberg. King Paul was the grandson of Princess Victoria of Great Britain, the Princess Royal, eldest daughter of Queen Victoria who had married Emperor Friedrich III of Germany. Queen Frederica, a granddaughter of Kaiser Wilhelm II, was a great-granddaughter of Emperor Friedrich III and Princess Victoria.

Between 1963 and 1968, Don Juan Carlos and Princess Sophia had three children: Elena, Cristina and Felipe. It was the christening of Don Felipe in 1968 that provided the momentous occasion for the return of Queen Victoria-Eugenie to Spain. The wife of Alfonso XIII had been absent from Spain for thirty seven years. The streets of Madrid were lined with well-wishers who proudly toasted the Spanish royal family. If anything, the christening of the young Don Felipe provided a needed boost to the fortunes of the monarchist movement in Spain. Within a year of the event, Franco assured the official return of the Bourbons by declaring Don Juan Carlos his political heir. It has been said that Franco waited until Queen Victoria-Eugenie's death to declare an heir, and since she died on April 15, 1969, Franco was freed to announce his choice. On July 22, 1969, Franco presented Don Juan Carlos to the Spanish Cortes as his official successor. Don Juan would never ascend the throne that he had tried to restore for almost three decades.

Franco bypassed Don Juan as his heir because the Franco movement saw Alfonso XIII's son as a liberal. Franco and his close advisors believed that Don Juan Carlos was a better candidate to continue the legacy of the dictatorship. Even still, some other members of Franco's inner circle believed that Don Juan Carlos was not the best choice available to the dictator. The monarchist party was unpleasantly surprised in 1972 when Franco's granddaughter married one of King Alfonso XIII's grandchildren, Don Alfonso de Borbón y Dampierre. The groom was the eldest child of the Infante Don Jaime and his first wife, Emanuela Dampierre. But since Don Jaime had renounced his dynastic rights in 1933, years before the birth of his children, Don Alfonso was born without a place in the line of succession to the throne. Added to this fact were the restrictions the law of succession placed on spouses a Spanish prince or princess could marry. The old Bourbon law demanded that members of the Spanish royal family marry members of reigning or formerly sovereign royal houses. This alone excluded don Jaime's children from any dynastic pretensions. Nonetheless, having been raised on the fringes of the royal family Don Alfonso de Borbón y Dampierre saw marriage into Franco's family as a means to improve his future standing in Spain.

Naturally, both Don Juan and Don Juan Carlos were very concerned about Don Alfonso's motives. After all, the Infante Don Jaime had tried to recant his renunciation of 1933 on several opportunities. Real concern to the succession was increased when Franco loyalists began paying particular attention to Don Alfonso and his new wife. Finding himself in the limelight, Don Alfonso did not hide his desire to become one of the possible candidates for king once the monarchy was restored. And if his candidacy did not succeed, he at least wanted to become a fully titled member of the Spanish royal family, not a morganatic son of a father who had willingly relinquished his dynastic rights. Indeed, Don Alfonso became a thorn on the side of both his uncle and cousin.

The last years of the Franco regime where clouded by increasing terrorism throughout Spain and renewed uncertainty about the succession. By 1975 Franco was a ghost of his past self, death loomed over his palace. The international community, as did the Spanish royal family, carefully prepared for what could be the plunging of Spain into yet another period of political instability. After several excruciatingly painful days, General Francisco Franco died on November 20, 1975. Almost four decades of military dictatorship ended with his death. For several hectic days Spain was adrift as many groups tried to imprint the dictator's succession with their own choice. Despite these efforts, Don Juan Carlos swore allegiance in front of the Cortes on November 22, 1975. Spain was again a monarchy, the Bourbons had returned after a forty-four year hiatus.

Don Juan and his court in exile felt affronted by the accession of Juan Carlos I. Don Juan had always considered that he was going to be Franco's successor. For some months there was distance between father and son. But as time passed by, Don Juan and King Juan Carlos settled their differences. The Bourbon restoration gained strength and support under Juan Carlos and slowly all the vestiges of Franco's state were abolished as Spain became a constitutional monarchy. Peace within the family arrived on May 14, 1977, when Don Juan abdicated his dynastic rights on the person of his son, the King of Spain.

After this solemn ceremony at the Royal Palace in Madrid, Don Juan and Doña Maria de las Mercedes returned to Spain. One month after Don Juan's abdication the first general election of the post-Franco era was held. Democracy received a sounding victory and Franco's old cronies finally realized that Juan Carlos I was just as liberal and democratic as his father had been. Today, King Juan Carlos I of Spain serves as the most relevant source of inspiration for many of his exiled royal cousins. He played a leading role in the transformation of Spain from dictatorship to democracy. He is responsible for lifting the fortunes of his house to levels not witnessed in centuries.

Once settled in Madrid, Don Juan enjoyed the popularity he rightfully deserved. He remained away from political squabbles and relished the remaining years of his life. Surrounded by a large family, Don Juan and Doña Maria de las Mercedes thrived in the role of grandparents. The Infanta Doña Pilar married Luis Gomez-Acebo, Viscount de la Torre, in 1967. The couple received the courtesy title of Duke of Badajoz from Don Juan, and had five children. The Duke of Badajoz succumbed to cancer in 1991. The Infanta Doña Margarita married Doctor Carlos Zurita in 1972. Don Juan gave his daughter the courtesy title of duchess of Soria. The Dukes of Soria have two children.

Don Juan proudly witnessed how his son transformed Spain and restored the luster of the Bourbon monarchy. He also continued to sail his yacht along the coast of the land he had always lived to serve. Unfortunately, Don Juan, an avid smoker, fell victim to a terrible cancer in 1993. The Count of Barcelona bravely fought to endure this new obstacle. Nonetheless, this was a battle he would not survive. Don Juan died on April 1, 1993. Spain was plunged into deep mourning by the passing of this legendary figure. The royal family prepared itself to give a final farewell to this courageous man. And although he never ruled as monarch, Don Juan was interred in the Pantheon at the Escorial Monastery reserved for the Kings of Spain.

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