Who is the real Juan Carlos I? This modern-day King of Spain single-handedly saved his country from a tyrannical dictator—but then there was his dark side. He was an animal rights activist who loved to hunt. He was a husband who had lovers in the thousands, and he was the Kickback King—using his power to amass a huge personal fortune while his country was suffering one of the worst economic crises of modern times. Saint or sinner? Let these facts about King Juan Carlos I help you decide.
1. His Name Was A Mouthful
Back in 1938, when he was born, this future King of Spain got a name of epic proportions: Juan Carlos Alfonso Víctor María de Borbón y Borbón-Dos Sicilias. This was one of the perils of being a member of the Spanish Royal family. But he had far bigger problems than that. How about having the government of the day not let you live in your own country?
Yes, when Juan Carlos was born, the entire royal family lived in exile in Rome.
2. He Was The King Of Nothing
Juan Carlos’ father, Alfonso XIII, was the King of Spain but, because of the Second Spanish Republic, he wasn’t really the king of anything. You see, the Second Republic didn’t want a king, so the moment they took power, the royal family had to flee the country. This was all well and good, except Juan Carlos’ father wanted his son to study in Madrid. And, if my high school geography serves me right, that’s right smack in the middle of Spain—where Juan Carlos wasn’t allowed to go…
3. His Father Couldn’t Be Trusted
Since the end of the Spanish Civil War in 1939, Francisco Franco had been the leader of the country. Franco was a dictator, but he had a major thing of all things royal. By 1947, Franco was ready to choose a new king, and Juan Carlos’ father was the next one in line. Franco, however, had a bad feeling about him: He thought that Juan Carlos’ father did not back his regime. So, Franco didn’t choose him—or anyone else for that matter. Franco claimed he wanted a king, but it would be some time before he actually chose one.
Yet, for some reason, Franco took a sudden and mysterious interest in young Juan Carlos—a relationship that would prove dangerous for both of them.
4. He Got Special Permission
Juan Carlos’ father was still hanging on to the belief that he could be the King of Spain, but he needn’t have wasted his time. Franco had already dismissed him from his mind, and had turned his sights on Juan Carlos. In 1948, Franco gave his new protege an unusual permit. Even though his entire family was in exile in Italy, Juan Carlos could return to Spain and study there. It was certainly a thrill for Juan Carlos to receive special attention from the dictator, but it also must’ve been a bit scary.
After realizing he had extreme dyslexia, Juan Carlos chose to study for the army. This would soon turn out to be a lethal choice.
5. He Dated Older
In 1954, when Juan Carlos was just 16, he bravely walked into a villa and asked the very wealthy man of the house a straightforward question: He wanted to take his daughter on a date. The young woman in question was Olghina Di Robilant and she was three years older than Juan Carlos. The two dated and Juan Carlos told her that he would never cheat on her, because he was going to be king one day and that wouldn’t be all right.
Maybe he really believed it. Time would prove otherwise.
6. He Wanted To Show Off
While Juan Carlos was still in the army college, he returned home to visit his family. At this time, Juan Carlos was 18 and his brother Alfonso was 14. Alfonso was excited for his brother’s return and, after attending evening Mass, he rushed home to see his brother. Juan Carlos and Alfonso disappeared into Alfonso’s room to reconnect. Quite likely Juan Carlos was excited to show off all the manly things he’d learned.
Sadly, only one of them would ever walk out of that room alive.
7. There Was A Loud Blast
There’s more than one story about what happened on March 29, 1956, but there is one thing everyone agrees on: At around 8:30 pm everyone at the house heard a loud blast. The sound came from the room where Juan Carlos and his brother had entered. When family members opened the door, a horrifying sight awaited or them: Alfonso, covered in blood.
8. It Was Worse
It was even worse than it appeared. A pistol that Juan Carlos and Alfonso had been playing with had accidentally gone off, striking Alfonso in the face. Within a matter of minutes, the young man succumbed to his injuries. While Juan Carlos left the room unscathed, he now certainly owed everyone an explanation. What had happened in that room? And why was his brother’s lifeless body lying at his feet?
9. They Were Alone
Even though the two young men were alone in the room, others seemed to have an opinion about what had happened. A Greek author, who got the story from Juan Carlos’ sister, said that Alfonso was actually out of the room just before the shot went off. In fact, it was his reentry into the room that caused the accident. The door apparently knocked Juan Carlos’s arm and caused the pistol to fire.
This story of incredibly dumb luck is the least damaging to Juan Carlos—but there are more sinister theories as well.
10. Two More Versions
The dressmaker for Juan Carlos’s mother had another story to tell. It seemed that Juan Carlos had actually pointed the pistol directly in his brother’s face and fired. Of course, Juan Carlos apparently had no idea it was loaded. A friend of Juan Carlos’ told a similar story, except that Juan Carlos hadn’t aimed it at his brother. Instead, he claimed the pistol fired, ricocheted off the wall, and only then hit Alfonso in the face.
No matter how you slice it, Juan Carlos was in a horrible situation—and somehow, it was about to get worse.
11. His Father Found Out
When Juan Carlos’ father heard about what happened, he went into hysterics. When he finally reached his son, he grabbed Juan Carlos around the neck and screamed at him, demanding to know if he had done it on purpose. No one knows how Juan Carlos answered, but two days later, he was back at college finishing his degree. Dad then took the weapon and threw it into the sea.
12. He Received An Invite
Before this incident, back when Juan Carlos was just 16 years old, he received an invitation from Queen Frederica of Greece. The queen wanted to throw a lavish party on a cruise of the beautiful Greek Islands. The purpose of the party was to promote tourism, but Frederica had an ulterior motive: to hook up royalty with royalty. The queen took it upon herself to make sure that royalty was flirting, dating, and eventually marrying other royalty.
It was on this cruise that Juan Carlos met Princess Sophia, Frederica’s own daughter. If she’d known what was good for her, she’d have found another young prince to flirt with…
13. He Didn’t Measure Up
Princess Sophia was the full-on Princess of Greece, and what was Juan Carlos? His position as a royal was totally up in the air. At that time in Spain, no one from his family was actually a reigning monarch of anything. There was talk that Juan Carlos would be king, but Franco seemed to be waffling about when that would happen. In a nutshell, people thought that Sophia could do better than Juan Carlos—way better.
Love, however, proved to be stronger: The two announced their engagement in 1961. It ended up, however, being a huge mistake—mostly for her.
14. There Was A Difference
Juan Carlos and Sophia may both have come from royalty, but there was a fundamental difference: religion. Sophia was Greek Orthodox and Juan Carlos was Catholic. After a whole lot of arguing, they reached a compromise. The wedding would have two ceremonies; one for each religion. But what about their everyday lives? Where would they go to church? How would they raise their children?
As usual with royals, the groom got his way.
15. She Gave It Away
The plan was that after the marriage of Juan Carlos and Sophia, the bride would do two things. She would convert to Catholicism, and she would change her name to Sofia—the Spanish version of her name. It seemed that Sophia got a raw deal. She was giving up her religion and her name all for a man who would maybe never be King of anything.
The insults to Sophia, however, didn’t stop there.
16. He Tried To Hide It
The two ceremonies went off without a hitch. The Catholic at 10:00 am and the Greek Orthodox at noon. Dictator Franco couldn’t help but meddle—this was his prized mentee after all. Franco only allowed three Spanish newspapers to cover the wedding. He also would not allow the media to publish any pictures of Juan Carlos’ father—they were still on the outs. As a personal insult to Sofia, Franco refused to let Spanish media cover the Greek wedding ceremony at all. It was like it didn’t happen.
But Franco had no interest in pleasing Sofia; it was all about Juan Carlos.
17. He Vied With His Cousin
Now that Juan Carlos had a wife, he was probably itching to be King. Franco was still toying with the idea of having a monarch in Spain, but was being vague about who that would be. Juan Carlos’ father was certainly not the one, but there was someone else: Juan Carlos’ cousin Alfonso. Alfonso was 110 percent behind Franco and proved it in a big way: He married Franco’s granddaughter, Carmen Martínez-Bordiú.
So, it was cousin versus cousin, and only one could be King.
18. He Made A Choice
Eventually, Franco made his decision: He went with Juan Carlos. In reality, the grandson-in-law would have been the better choice. Alfonso was very committed to the regime. But, for whatever reason, Franco had a soft spot for Juan Carlos. He’d groomed him from when he was a teenager, but Juan Carlos was a bit of a wild card. He said he supported the regime but still, there was his father, who had very much not been behind Franco. All the dictator wanted was to have a king who would continue the harsh authoritative and conservative regime that he’d started.
He trusted Juan Carlos, but we’ll soon see that it was his biggest mistake.
19. He Had To Swear
In 1969, Juan Carlos became the official heir-apparent to the throne. Part of the deal was that Juan Carlos had to swear his loyalty to the Movimiento Nacional—Franco’s political movement. Unlike his father, Juan Carlos seemed to support Franco with no hesitation. Franco was becoming more and more comfortable with Juan Carlos.
Was it possible, however, that Juan Carlos was playing a very dangerous game with the unpredictable and violent Franco? Only time would tell.
20. They Were Constant Companions
Soon, Juan Carlos became an almost constant companion to Franco. The public saw Juan Carlos standing beside their dictator at most public functions. As Franco’s health started to deteriorate, Juan Carlos was at his side even more often. Those who were anti-Franco showed disappointment at Juan Carlos, as they had hoped he would end Franco’s brutal reign of terror. On the surface Juan Carlos seemed to be Franco’s biggest supporter—but was it true?
21. He Did It In Secret
Juan Carlos was outwardly singing the praises of Franco, but behind the scenes was another matter. Juan Carlos was having meetings behind the dictator’s back, and they were about getting rid of Franco’s brutal regime. He even asked his father for advice, Franco’s confirmed enemy. If Franco had found out, it would have been curtains for Juan Carlos—maybe even an execution.
Somehow Franco didn’t catch on to Juan Carlos’ duplicity, but his advisors certainly did.
22. He Was Two-Faced
Franco’s advisors were pretty sure that Juan Carlos wasn’t being honest about supporting Franco. They could see that Juan Carlos was putting on a false smile, betraying the aging dictator every chance he got. The advisors had to do something, and they had to do it before Franco passed on. They nervously told Franco what they thought of Juan Carlos and waited for the dictator to unleash his violent revenge.
That, however, didn’t happen. Franco just couldn’t believe that Juan Carlos would betray him. Boy was he wrong.
23. They Turned Him Off
On October 30, 1975, Franco’s poor health left him in a coma. By November 20, his family agreed to turn off the machines that kept him alive. As Franco had previously arranged, Juan Carlos stepped in to rule the country. Within days of assuming the role of leader, Juan Carlos showed his true colors: He started undoing Franco’s regime.
Juan Carlos had clearly double-crossed his mentor, but it was for the good of Spain. Now Juan Carlos had his work cut out for him. First thing: distancing himself from all of Franco’s nasty friends.
24. They Were A Dangerous Bunch
Of course, leaders from around the world came to honor Franco at his funeral. There were certainly a good number of dictators there, which made Juan Carlos feel a little uncomfortable. Juan Carlos had planned his coronation just a few days after Franco’s funeral, so most dignitaries were hanging around after the funeral to attend the coronation. One dictator who was planning to attend both ceremonies was Chile’s Augusto Pinochet.
This was going to be a big problem for Juan Carlos.
25. He Had To Uninvite Him
Franco had used Pinochet’s regime as a model for his own, so Pinochet was a particularly important person at Franco’s funeral. Juan Carlos, on the other hand, felt that Pinochet’s presence at his inauguration wasn’t great optics for his plan to remove the dictatorship. Pinochet was a ruthless and feared leader who was responsible for thousands of executions and forced disappearances.
Imagine how Juan Carlos felt when he had to personally tell him that he wasn’t invited to the party. Awkward!
26. He Turned His Country Around
Once Franco’s funeral and his own inauguration were behind him, Juan Carlos went ahead and started undoing most things that Franco had accomplished. He reformed Spain back to a democracy, and there actually weren’t many who stood in his way. It also helped when his father officially recognized his son as King—even though the job should have been his.
Everything was going according to Juan Carlos’ plan—and then there was a snag.
27. He Faced Opposition
Less than 10 years into his reign, Juan Carlos faced opposition. There was a group who wanted Spain to return to a dictatorship. They convinced their supporters that King Juan Carlos was with them and secretly involved in the coup—but they were lying. When the pro-dictatorship fighters entered parliament to take the country, King Juan Carlos stood up and made a public address. It wasn’t directly to his people, but to a TV camera.
28. He Was Saved By TV
Because there were rumors saying that he was in favor of the coup, King Juan Carlos took to the airways to prove them wrong. On live TV, he said unequivocally that he did not support the coup and that he supported a democratic government. This turned most people against the group behind the coup and saved Spain from returning to a dictatorship. His fearless act also made him a lot of new friends among democrats and leftists. Who says that watching TV is a waste of time?
Juan Carlos was riding a wave of extreme popularity, and it seemed to have no end. Well…of course it did. Just wait and see.
29. He Brought The Country Up To Speed
Following the attempted coup, Juan Carlos proceeded to do a lot of things that would make Franco roll in his grave. In the early 1980s, he passed a law allowing divorce and even one for access to abortions. Later, in 2005, King Juan Carlos legalized marriages between people of the same gender. The Spanish public seemed to like the new leadership, and just over three-quarters of them voted that he was “good or very good.”
They obviously didn’t know the real Juan Carlos—a man with thousands of secrets.
30. He Had More Than His Share
Juan Carlos had been quite adept at tricking Franco, and he continued this practice with his wife. It started with one girlfriend, Marta Gaya, an interior designer who the media had known as Juan Carlos’s lover. This relationship allegedly went on for 40 years. But that was just the tip of the iceberg. Some journalists estimate Juan Carlos’ total number of mistresses to be a whopping 5000. It’s no wonder that Queen Sofia refused to share a bed with him.
And he wasn’t just a predator of women, but also of animals.
31. He Hunted
Even though Juan Carlos had shot his own little brother, he still had an affection for hunting. In October 2004, Juan Carlos went on a hunt in Romania and slaughtered nine bears—let’s call it an even ten because one was pregnant. Again in 2006, Juan Carlos allegedly shot a bear in Russia. This incident may be even worse than the bears in Romania because of the nature of the bear: It was a pet bear named Mitrofan and—strangely enough—it was inebriated when Juan Carlos fired at it. Maybe they both were.
A few years later, Juan Carlos was taking some more shots: this time of a political nature.
32. He Lost His Cool
At a summit in 2007, Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez kept interrupting the Spanish Prime Minister. King Juan Carlos was on hand and became disturbed by the constant interruptions. Juan Carlos turned to the Venezualan president and asked him most impolitely to shut up. Juan Carlos later stormed out of the summit over a speech by the president of Nicaragua.
The king was clearly overworked and what he needed was a vacation—but he took one at the worst possible time.
33. He Took A Very Expensive Trip
In 2012, Spain was suffering extreme economic stress with a very high unemployment rate: 50 percent for young workers. They were also about to accept a $155 billion bailout. In the midst of Spain’s economic despair, Juan Carlos took a very expensive trip to Africa. During the trip, Juan Carlos broke a hip and helicopters arrived to airlift Juan Carlos out—at great expense to taxpayers.
The issue, however, wasn’t just about the expensive airlift, it was that he was in Africa at all. He wasn’t representing his country, so what was Juan Carlos doing in Africa?
34. It Was A Freebie
Because of his broken hip, the truth about Juan Carlos’ trip to Africa slowly came out. The public wanted to know how a King could spend an estimated $47,000 on a trip when the country was suffering so much economically. First of all, Juan Carlos wanted the public to know that their tax dollars had not paid for his trip to Botswana. The money for the trip came from Mohamed Eyad Kayali—a businessman from Syria.
This seemed to pacify the complainers, at least until the real reason for his trip came out—and it was a doozy.
35. He Had A Secret
King Juan Carlos had kept his trip to Botswana a secret, and it was for a very good reason: he was hunting elephants. Most Spaniards were absolutely against the hunting of elephants, and Juan Carlos should have been too. You see, he was the honorary president of the World Wide Fund for Nature. This arrogant move brought an end to the King’s honeymoon with the media. He was, like the elephants, open game.
The journalists had pens and not weapons, but it was certainly going to be a bloodbath.
36. More Bad News
There was even more fallout from this trip to Botswana—the one we can be sure Juan Carlos wished he’d never taken. Yes, it was true that a Syrian millionaire had paid the tab for the trip, but what later came out was who had organized the trip. It was the strangely named Corinna zu Sayn-Wittgenstein-Sayn. This German-Danish entrepreneur, as it turned out, was not only Juan Carlos’ trip advisor but also…big gasp…his lover. So, this explains why Queen Sofia waited three days before visiting the King in the hospital.
37. She Was More Than A Friend
Juan Carlos’ lover, Sayn-Wittgenstein-Sayn, was on her second marriage when she started dating Juan Carlos. The media had in the past turned a bind eye to this indiscretion, but now that he’d lost the favor of the press, they announced the affair to the world. So not only was Juan Carlos hunting loveable elephants, he was doing it with his illicit lover.
The media, however, was just getting started. Juan Carlos had many more secrets to uncover.
38. He Faced More Bad Press
Once the elephant hunt—and the affair—had become public, there was more bad press for Juan Carlos. It seemed he’d been a part of an embezzlement scandal involving his daughter and son-in-law. His son-in-law ended up behind bars for his part in the scandal, but as king, Juan Carlos was immune to the law. He may have avoided a trial, but his reputation as a monarch went completely down the tubes.
39. He Was Through
Early in 2014, the king’s chief of staff denied the possibility of Juan Carlos abdicating the throne. However, by the middle of that same year, it looked like a certainty. The Prime Minister of Spain went on the television to announce that the king would step down and let his son take over. When Juan Carlos had a chance to talk to reporters, he had the opportunity to get a jab in at another royal family.
He said that he was abdicating because he didn’t want “his son to wither away like Prince Charles.” The abdication was finally complete: but the scandals were only starting.
40. They Listened In
In 2020, the King’s mistress, Sayn-Wittgenstein-Sayn, was in the news again. Somehow newspapers got a hold of a recording of her talking to a former law officer. In the recording, Sayn-Wittgenstein-Sayn referred to huge kickbacks Juan Carlos had received concerning the construction of a high-speed railway in Saudi Arabia. The cost of the railway was $7.1 billion.
This was big news for the Spanish public, and horrible news for Juan Carlos.
41. She Spilled The Beans
It turned out that Juan Carlos took the proceeds from his kickbacks and put them in a Swiss bank account. He then did something even more suspicious: He bought homes in Monaco under his mistress’ name to avoid paying taxes. Sayn-Wittgenstein-Sayn said in the tape that he didn’t do it because he loved her, it was merely because she lived in Monaco. I guess he was only charming when he was a prince.
42. He Gifted Her
Besides buying houses in his mistress’ name, Juan Carlos also just handed her cash. In 2012 he gave Corinna Sayn-Wittgenstein-Sayn $100 million. She claimed the gift was for his “gratitude and love”—couldn’t he just have bought her a Starbucks card? The money was supposed to guarantee her future and that of her children. He apparently also wanted to win her back again. Good luck with that Juan Carlos.
43. He Asked For It Back
In a letter written to Swiss lawyers in 2018, Juan Carlos called the money to Sayn-Wittgenstein-Sayn irrevocable. But was it really? In 2014, he’d asked her for the money back. I’m no expert, but doesn’t this sound a lot like money laundering? Juan Carlos was trying to legitimize the money he’d earned from kickbacks. He did this by purchasing real estate and making huge and likely bogus gifts of cash. Sayn-Wittgenstein-Sayn later left the press with a real stunner. She said that because of what she knew, her and her family’s lives were at stake.
Was Juan Carlos capable of harming her? Was he becoming the Franco he’d worked so hard to destroy?
44. He Sent A Message
Corinna Sayn-Wittgenstein-Sayn returned home one day to find that someone had broken into her villa. The strangers had made a mess of her personal documents, but there was something much more disturbing than that. Sayn-Wittgenstein-Sayn found a book on her coffee table about the demise of Princess Diana.
It seemed that Juan Carlos was sending her a message: If she didn’t stop talking, she too could end up in a crashed car. The harassment, however, didn’t stop there.
45. He’d Do Anything
In June 2017, Sayn-Wittgenstein-Sayn said that someone had drilled a hole into her bedroom window: for what purpose, no one knows. She also reported someone firing at her CCTV cameras. Sayn-Wittgenstein-Sayn reported these strange occurrences to the authorities, but no one could explain them. All she knows is that Juan Carlos wanted to keep her silent, and he’d do anything to make that happen.
46. He Got Cut Off
Juan Carlos was no longer king, but the number one heir to his fortune was. The Telegraph pointed out that it would not be okay for Juan Carlos’ son to inherit money tainted with scandal. In response to the newspaper’s claim, the Royal Household made an announcement: King Felipe VI would not be getting any of his father’s dirty money. Nor would Juan Carlos continue to receive his $200,000 a year stipend from the Royal Household—which I guess was just pocket change to the ex-king.
What Juan Carlos did next showed the world that he hadn’t learned his lesson.
47. He Used Credit Cards
Another way to spend dirty money is to use credit cards. Various members of the royal family received credit cards and were told to spend as freely as they wanted. Why? Because no one in the Royal Family was actually paying the bills. An overseas account was automatically paying the balance on the cards, and the account didn’t belong to any member of the Royal Family. So who was paying the bills?
48. It Was Tax Offense
It came out later that the owner of the credit cards was Mexican millionaire Allen Sanginés-Krause—a friend of Juan Carlos’. In a single year, the balances of these credit cards were over $125,000 and therefore represented undisclosed income. Spanish authorities considered this a tax offense. Not surprisingly, Juan Carlos had previously donated large sums of money to Sanginés-Krause—much like he had to his mistress.
It looked like the same money-laundering all over again.
49. He Paid
In December 2020, Juan Carlos voluntarily paid approximately $725,000 in taxes to the Spanish government. Most saw this as him admitting that the credit cards he and his family had used were bogus. The payment was likely a way for him to avoid having his financial records scrutinized any further. There was other money allegedly hidden away in both Switzerland and Jersey, but both Swiss and Spanish prosecutors, for some reason, dropped all the cases against him.
50. He Disappeared
Sometime in 2020, Juan Carlos’ son, King Felipe VI, found a letter from his father. The letter simply stated that he wanted to leave Spain due to all the bad publicity surrounding his finances. By the time the public had heard the contents of the letter, Juan Carlos was already gone. Many speculated about where he would go. Portugal? France? The Dominican Republic? All of these turned out to be bad guesses.
51. They Found Him
On August 17, 2020, the Royal Household made an announcement: Juan Carlos was in the United Arab Emirates. It’s not surprising he would end up in the Middle East—close to where most of his business malpractices have taken place. What’s surprising is who he’s with. Some media have reported that Marta Gaya, his mistress from 40 years ago, is with him in the United Arab Emirates.
If you thought he would take his wife—you don’t know Juan Carlos.
52. He’s Known As A Sinner
Juan Carlos’ son has tried to distance himself from his father and his unwholesome ways, but it has been difficult. The problem is that younger citizens of Spain know more about Juan Carlos’ evil ways than his virtuous ones. In fact, in a 2021 poll, more of them voted in favor of a republic than a monarchy. It seems as though his misdeeds are starting to undo his valiant efforts to save Spain.
53. He Returned
In May 2022, Juan Carlos returned to Spain for a visit. Investigators had thrown out all of the accusations against him, so he got the green light to return to see his son and wife for the first time in over two years. The Spanish people—and maybe even Sofia—were clearly not thrilled to see their bad boy ex-king. At the end of his short visit, Juan Carlos got back on his private jet and returned to his new home in the Middle East. The man who’d saved Spain from a dictatorship—and had been their King—no longer felt welcome.