No one watching last week's memorial service in Madrid for the bereaved families will forget the moment when King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia moved towards the devastated men and women from the workers' suburbs and embraced them as if they were members of their own family. Queen Sofia, tears streaming down her cheeks, handed her shawl to a lady- in-waiting then hoisted the gold chain of her little black bag across her body to free both hands to touch and caress her weeping subjects.
She and the king moved slowly along the pews of the Almudena cathedral, individually talking and listening to each of more than 500 relatives of those who died in the bomb blasts. In their wake followed the princesses Elena and Cristina and their spouses, Prince Felipe and his fiancée Letizia, who all did the same. It took more than half an hour, during which political leaders of the world's most important countries were kept waiting on their feet, and the Spanish royal family secured nationwide, perhaps worldwide, admiration and affection.
This is what they are for, you might think: to console a traumatised people in the name of the nation, above party, regional or special interest. But this surpassed the job description. The royals "broke all the rules of protocol", exclaimed the Spanish media in amazement. They were the only public figures to reach across the chasm dividing the ruling elite, the Church hierarchy and the world's dignitaries from those for whom the whole show was orchestrated, but who until that moment were mere observers of a frigid, alien spectacle. Can you imagine Britain's royals making such a gesture?
And therein lies the difference, in stark relief. The Spanish royal family, dismissed here as Hello! fodder and historically irrelevant beside the house of Windsor, have proved themselves to be more dignified and better in touch with their subjects. Their emotions are real and empathetic. Not for them a reluctant, distant gesture of sorrow, a lowered flag and a five-minute walkabout. What the Spanish royal family dis- played was no formal act of condolence, nor a histrionic performance for the cameras. It was the physical enactment of every Spaniard's feelings for those afflicted by the tragedy, a spontaneous human response that not one of the dignitaries present in the cathedral was capable of making.
Spontaneity is not a word that occurs frequently in Spain's manuals of protocol. Spanish ceremonial etiquette has been famed for centuries for its remote and elaborate formalism. Spaniards love procedure. You can attend academies and take a degree in protocol. Journalists have been invited on a crash course on etiquette to prepare them for the royal wedding of Prince Felipe, heir to the throne, on 22 May.
There's not much that Queen Sofia and King Juan Carlos need to learn about ceremonial. Each from a royal dynasty, they were rigorously trained from childhood for their destiny to rule. But they combine their regal bearing with a common touch unique among Europe's crowned heads. And it's not a stuck-on populism designed to curry favour. These are no cycling monarchs. They exude wealth, style and regal sophistication. The king may don leathers for a burn-up on his Harley, but that's for his own pleasure, not to chum up with the biker fraternity.
Spain's royals have evolved a regal but relaxed counter-protocol, partly reflecting the cheery, straightforward personalities of the king and queen and their three children, and partly because their survival depends on retaining the affection of their subjects. Juan Carlos summed up their philosophy in a rare television interview in November 2000 that marked 25 years of his reign: "I always wanted the monarchy to be open and near the people, for many people to be able to reach the king and queen, for them to be able to see us, to talk to us, to speak to us. Because the truth is that, before being king, one of the things I learned and which is still of great use to me is to listen."
Compare that with Elizabeth II. Certainly, lunches for women of achievement help, but what meaningful dialogue can she have with 180 women at the same time? Prince Charles, who has it in his power, potentially, to modernise the Windsors, is yet more remote, seemingly spending his time launching foods from his estates. Those further down the royal hierarchy in Britain are generally acknowledged only when there is a scandal; one has to think of a failed television career, a toe-sucking wife, a drug-addled teenager or petulant princes unwilling to engage with their subjects (apart from the odd lap-dancer, of course).
Juan Carlos and Sofia, meanwhile, were never guaranteed popular support: they had to earn it. And both directly experienced the terrible costs of losing popularity: exile. Juan Carlos was born in Rome in 1938, where the house of Borbon took temporary refuge after Spain proclaimed a republic in 1931, which was then crushed by General Franco's fascist forces in the ensuing civil war. Sofia's brother, King Constantine of Greece, was driven from his throne in the 1960s. Foisted upon Spain in 1975 by the will of Franco, who died that year, Juan Carlos made it his mission to be loved, and has shown a surer touch than any politician.
The king was the first establishment figure to step on Galicia's polluted beaches during the Prestige oil disaster in 2002. He strode in his brilliantly buffed shoes across the black slime to express his admiration and thanks for the fishermen and volunteers helping to clean up. Shamed by the king's example, ministers hurried to the scene but barely glanced at the sea and kept well clear of both the filth and the people shovelling it. Prime Minister José Maria Aznar, when he finally made it to Coruña, studied charts in the maritime tower. The fishermen whose livelihoods were destroyed were heartened by the king's gesture: "He went down and got his feet dirty," said one, approvingly. They scorned the politicians for not doing the same.
The queen, too, hailed by her husband as "una gran profesional", has won hearts by well-judged, but mostly low-key, gestures. She attended the mass funeral of 24 children killed in a bus crash held on a municipal football pitch in Soria in July 2000. And her face, ravaged by grief as she leaned towards the devastated relatives and gently caressed their faces, produced the Spanish press photo of the year.
The royals work hard to be popular by leading an unpretentious lifestyle. They shun the opulent royal palace in Madrid, except for formal functions, in favour of the Zarzuela, a former hunting lodge out of town whose dining table, it is reported, seats no more than 14. More importantly, the king nurtured Spain's fledgling democracy. In his message to the nation after being proclaimed king on 22 November 1975 he pledged to restore democracy and reign as king of all Spaniards, "without exception".
None the less, he was dubbed "Juan Carlos the Brief" by sceptics who thought him destined to follow his predecessors into exile. The rightful heir was Juan Carlos's father, Juan de Borbon. But Franco opted for the son to succeed him, and Juan Carlos inherited full powers after the dictator's death. The young king skilfully shed those powers and reinvented himself as a constitutional monarch, approved by popular ref- erendum three years later. His standing was further enhanced when he defused a coup attempt in 1981, when Lt-Col Tejero burst into parliament and held MPs hostage at gunpoint. The king pledged his commitment to Spain's democratic constitution and ordered the military back to their barracks.
Then there are the three children, Elena, Cristina and Felipe. No Sophiegate here, no toe-sucking, no ugly divorces; a scandal-free zone. Elena married a lugubrious duke, Jaime de Marichalar, and quietly fulfilled her duty to bear children. Cristina caused a minor flurry by picking the ex-handball champion Iñaki Urdangarin. But that wedding, as well as being a happy one, was a political masterstroke: the Spanish princess married her Basque husband in the cathedral of Barcelona, the city where they live, reconciling at a stroke Spain's three competing centres of political and economic power.
And Prince Felipe, trying the nation's patience with his prolonged bachelordom and unsuitable girlfriends, finally settled on Letizia Ortiz, a divorced television presenter who is hailed by the nation as the perfect modern princess. Felipe's first serious romance was as a teenager with the aristocratic beauty Isabel Sartorius. The queen cut that relationship - in a steely gesture reminiscent of Queen Elizabeth's veto of Camilla for the young Charles - because Isabel was deemed too old, came from a broken home and was niece of a leading communist. Letizia is divorced, and of non-aristocratic birth. But she is beautiful, Spanish and her profession, even her "past", are praised as proof that she is a woman of her time. The couple cancelled their stag and hen night parties out of respect for those afflicted by the bombings. Felipe also asked Madrid's city hall to cancel a multimedia spectacle to celebrate their wedding and to donate the money to a monument to victims of the attack. The wedding celebrations have been scaled down to a shadow of the national fiesta that was planned, but perfectly in tune with the country's sombre mood.
There have been blips, of course, but only small ones. There was a half-hearted murmur when Juan Carlos took delivery of a £11m luxury yacht in 2000, paid for by Mallorca businessmen in appreciation for the prestige lent to the island by the royal family who holiday there. Scorn was heaped on Prince Felipe's new house, condemned as a tastelessly decorated, ostentatious pile (shades of Prince Andrew's "Southyork"). No one quite knows, or cares, how the princesses' husbands earn their living.
The family is helped by the hermetic self-censorship of the press. Royal finances, for instance, are off limits. Spain's monarchs have virtually no private fortune. Anyone investigating how the king spends the £40m a year received from the Spanish taxpayer is politely invited to get lost. Rumours of peccadilloes circulate but never see the light of day. All this helps the house of Borbon to avoid scandal. Even the Guiñoles - the satirical puppet show based on Spitting Image - never touches the royals. The taboo is partly due to genuine respect, but also reflects the royals' peculiar role in Spain's transition to democracy after Franco. To attack the crown is tantamount to attacking the country's democratic identity.
With Felipe's engagement, even republicans conceded that King Juan Carlos is a both a good thing and a good king. As the El Mundo columnist Fernando Lopes put it: "Spain is not a monarchist country. In little more than half a century, Spain ejected three kings and installed two Republics... which were suppressed only by force of arms." Franco destroyed the last republic in 1939, but before that, Spaniards had cheerfully thrown out Alfonso XIII, Isabel II and Amadeo in a space of just 70 years. Many republicans try to square the circle by declaring themselves "juancarlistas", a sort of provisional adhesion to the monarchy so long as Juan Carlos is king.
A question mark therefore hangs over the future of a post-Juan Carlos monarchy. The media's sympathetic approach may not transfer automatically to King Felipe, despite the prince's efforts to earn the nation's affection too. That's why last Wednesday's appearance of the three junior royals was so important. They need to display their commitment to the people as convincingly as their parents. And their actions that day will probably confirm the monarchy's safety and popularity for at least another generation.
Are you watching, Buckingham Palace?
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