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When King Juan Carlos assumed the throne of Spain on 27 November 1975, dignitaries from around the world came to Madrid for the religious ceremony, a sacramental anointing that was witnessed by, among others, the presidents of France and Germany, the Duke of Edinburgh and the vice-president of the USA. This pointed the contrast with General Francisco Franco’s funeral a few days earlier, where the only foreign representatives apart from Vice-President Rockefeller had been Imelda Marcos and General Pinochet. But there is also a noted contrast with Juan Carlos’s son, who takes the throne today. Unlike his father, the new Felipe VI will not be crowned. He will take the throne in an investiture ceremony held in the Spanish parliament. Though the new king is a Catholic, there will be no religious element to the investiture, which is entirely secular and involves no foreign dignitaries.

This pared-down ‘coronation’ reflects the austere spirit of the times in Spain. Though reported on the world’s media, it will be an entirely national occasion, apparently because the speed with which it has been arranged precludes the attendance of foreign dignitaries. But both government and the royal household must have decided to avoid any lavish ceremony. Juan Carlos’s popularity fell sharply as his life seemed increasingly one of remote privilege, out of step with the harsh economic realities of life in Spain. Still haunted by the former king’s now-infamous disastrous elephant shoot in Botswana  and with the continuing corruption scandal around the Infanta Cristina, the House of Bourbon is actively avoiding controversy.

The decision to have no religious element to the ceremony appears to have been taken by the new king; the investiture reflects the nature of the secular state of which he is now head. This is, though, a significant change in the rituals of European royalty. Few of these monarchs are now crowned. Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands succeeded his mother, Queen Beatrix, in an investiture ceremony in April, while Norway dispensed with coronations in 1906. Norwegian kings do though have a ‘blessing’, while the Dutch investiture took place in the New Kirk.

The pomp and ceremony in Madrid today will, in contrast, be held in the Cortes, underlining the democratic nature of the state and the function of the monarch as its ceremonial head. Europeans no longer believe that kings are appointed or chosen by God. Why, then, continue with a sacramental consecration, the liturgical focus of a coronation?

The heir to a dictatorship as well as a throne, Juan Carlos I of Spain was the last European monarch to wield executive power. His son will never do so. He has been trained as a constitutional monarch, brought up to be politically adept, avoid controversy, and represent the nation. His father’s abdication gives him the opportunity to put this training into practice. But it also shows how the constitutional monarchy is changing. In continental Europe at least the role of king is increasingly defined as a job, carried out on terms set by government and by princes in good health and of working age.

Mary Vincent is Professor of Modern European History at the University of Sheffield, specialising in twentieth-century Spain. She is the author of Spain 1833-2002: People and State (OUP, 2007).

Image: The Prince and Princess of Asturias, Felipe de Borbón and his wife Leticia Ortiz, arrive at the Congress of Peru, accompanied by César Zumaeta Flores, 2010 [Congreso de la Republica del Perú via Flickr]

Tags : abdicationabdication of Juan Carlos IcoronationEuropean monarchyFelipe VIinvestitureJuan Carlos Imonarchy
Mary Vincent

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