When the clock struck midnight on June 19, 2014, King Juan Carlos I of Spain’s nearly 40-year reign came to an end. Two weeks after abdicating the Spanish throne amidst sagging approval ratings, Juan Carlos symbolically removed his red sash—signifying his status as leader of the Spanish military—and wrapped it around the waist of his son, 46-year-old Crown Prince Felipe.
The official transfer of power—viewed by many long overdue—was complete.
Carlos took the throne in 1975, after the death of brutal dictator Francisco Franco. Known as a staunch defender of democracy, Carlos immediately spearheaded historic political reforms that led to Spain's democratic elections in 1976—the first such elections in Spain since 1936. Under his rule, Spain grew into an economic powerhouse, attracting tourists from around the world.
But when Spain’s economy plummeted in 2012, so did Carlos’ approval ratings. Spanish citizens began to feel that the royal family had no consideration for them, or the country’s economic suffering. While the nation was falling into financial crisis, Carlos took heat for excesses such as an elephant-hunting trip to Africa. He was also criticized for taking luxurious gifts, like a yacht from a group of businesses. Further damning Carlos’ rule, his daughter, Princess Infanta Cristina, was being investigated on charges of tax fraud and money laundering. People began to view the royal family as extravagant traitors, and Carlos’ image as a soldier for democracy was dead. A 2013 poll by El Mundo found that nearly two-thirds of Spaniards thought the king should abdicate.
While Carlos’ image as an uncaring royal grew, many saw his son Felipe, who had married a “commoner” as more moral, and felt that the couple could revive the throne and the country. Not everyone agreed, however. On the day of the announcement, demonstrators gathered in Madrid, calling for an end to the monarchy altogether.
Like his father before him, Felipe pushed for transparency and progressive policies. He was the first to meet with LGBT rights groups, and even appeared on the cover of a gay magazine. He also cut his salary by 20 percent, and instituted a law that keeps royal family members from taking gifts.
As part of the abdication deal, Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia kept their immunity from civil or criminal prosecution, while Infanta Cristina was found not guilty of all charges. Her husband, Iñaki Urdangarin, was not so lucky. The brother-in-law to now-King Felipe was convicted of business fraud in 2018.