IN 1496 a Spanish infanta, Juana of Castile, sailed with 15,000 men to the Habsburg Netherlands to marry Philip the Handsome. Spanish courtiers returned home shocked at their hosts’ booze-soaked, lax morals. Juana later went mad. But her son, Charles V, had a better fate: he became ruler of a mighty European empire that included both countries.
More than five centuries on, machinations related to another infanta, King Juan Carlos’s daughter, Cristina, are again shocking courtiers. A magistrate named her on April 3rd as a suspect in an investigation into alleged corruption and tax fraud by her husband, Iñaki Urdangarín (who denies the accusations).
The past year has been bad for the 75-year-old Juan Carlos. He publicly apologised for sneaking off on a freebie elephant hunt in Botswana while his subjects struggled with recession and unemployment. Questions were asked in parliament about his relationship with Corinna zu Sayn-Wittgenstein, a divorced German businesswoman, who was also in Botswana at the time. She claims to have carried out secret, pro bono work for Spain but denies any improper relationship with the married monarch.
The infanta is due to appear before an investigating magistrate in Palma at the end of this month to explain how much she knew about the allegedly dodgy dealings of her husband. There is no indictment yet. But the city has already renamed a street that bore their joint title of Dukes of Palma de Mallorca.
With his popularity at an all-time low, rumours abound that the king may abdicate. Many point to the Netherlands, where a popular monarch is doing just that. Queen Beatrix, born only 26 days after Juan Carlos, will step down at the end of the month, following a tradition of abdication established by her mother, Juliana, and grandmother, Wilhelmina.
As relative latecomers to royalty—the first Orange-Nassau became king only in 1815—the Dutch royals have developed keen political antennae. Beatrix will leave the monarchy sounder than when she acceded. In 1966 protesters threw smoke bombs during her wedding to Claus von Amsberg, a German diplomat who had served in the Hitler Youth as a teenager. In the late 1970s her father, Prince Bernhard, was chastised for accepting over a million dollars in payments from an aircraft maker. Anarchists and squatters threw bricks at Beatrix’s investiture in 1980, demanding public housing.
A lawyer by training, Beatrix has gradually put such things behind her. She has been a fixture on state trade missions, sporting an imposing hat, and takes a keen interest in international policy. She has tried to pass her seriousness on to her son Willem-Alexander, once known as Prins Pils thanks to his fondness for a good time and a pint. A tragedy revealed how popular the royal family has become: early last year Willem-Alexander’s younger brother, Friso, was caught in an avalanche in Austria while skiing and left in a coma, eliciting an outpouring of public sympathy.
The Netherlands retains a reservoir of republican sentiment, both on the liberal right and on the left. But when Diederik Samsom, the Labour Party leader, was asked recently whether he still believed the monarchy should be abolished, it was only with visible embarrassment that he admitted he did.
Spain’s monarchy is more fragile than its Dutch counterpart. The country has had two republics. Kings have reigned for only half of the past 90 years. Juan Carlos was put on the throne at the behest of Franco in 1975. His great virtue, acknowledged even by republicans, is to have helped to foster a peaceful transition to democracy. Yet most Spaniards favour his abdication as the family’s popularity is waning.
At a recent royal dinner for international Olympic officials, Prince Felipe, the crown prince, standing in for his convalescent father, was self-assured and knowledgeable. He is obviously well-prepared for the top job. But will his father think to stand down?
From the print edition: Europehttp://www.economist.com/...ng-popular-queen?fsrc=rss