13 January 2011

Death to the Queen: One Night at the Palacio Real

The queen held her son’s hand as he lay in bed, trying to be as still as possible in the midst of an attack of hemophilia. His sisters and two of his brothers gathered around the room in a death watch that may have taken some of the young people by surprise.

For the death knell was sounding not in this sick chamber, but outside the Palacio Real, where surging crowds were yelling, “Viva la republica!” and “Death to the Queen.” As Queen Victoria Eugenie looked at her children, she could at least thank God that her other hemophilic son, 17-year-old Infante Gonzalo was not also ill. The family’s escape into exile was already hampered by the illness of the 24-year-old Prince of the Asturias. Indeed, King Alfonso XIII had been forced to leave his family behind, reassured that they would leave by train the following day.

But, what a long night awaited them.

Just weeks before, the queen, known as Ena in the family, had returned from a visit to her ailing English mother, Princess Beatrice, youngest daughter of Queen Victoria, to be greeted by rapturous crowds chanting “Long live the queen!” Knowing the tumultuous state of Spain’s government, she at first thought they were cheering against her. She was almost certainly pleased when the throngs of people caused her car to have to travel very slowly to the Palacio Real and their cheers led the royal family to make an impromptu balcony appearance.

For decades, the Spanish throne had been on rocky ground, saved only by successive dictatorships that at least kept the hounds of republicanism at bay. Even that stability was illusive. By late 1930, King Alfonso felt forced to ask for the resignation of the most recent “director” General Primo de Rivera. As the next spring approached, elections were set and the outcome was unpredictable. On April 17, the monarchists won an overwhelming victory—22,000 to 6,000—but only in the countryside. The cities were dominated by the republicans who seized the moment to make their own history. A civil war was imminent.

Alfonso refused to abdicate but he hoped civil war could be avoided if he and his family left the country for a while. It was a strategy that appeared to have worked in the past for their Greek cousins. As he slipped away to Marseilles, his wife and children gathered for a solemn dinner around Alfonsito’s sickbed. Only 18-year-old Infante Juan was absent, away at military school from which he would have to make his own way to safety. But, at least Juan was healthy, unlike his three brothers. Juan has not only escaped the hemophilia that plagued his oldest and youngest brothers but also the deafness of the second son Jaime, who had been rendered deaf by a botched medical procedure when he was only four.

With her one healthy son far from her ability to help him, Ena focused on the children in the room. Praying with them and trying to get some rest as the crowds bellowed outside. Suddenly, loud crashes rang through the palace. A truck rammed the gate over and over again. The terrified family awaited its fate. As the attackers emerged from the vehicle, the relief must have been overwhelming—instead of bloodthirsty revolutionaries, the truck carried the nuns who had taught Infante Jaime to speak after he lost his hearing. They had braved the crowds to bring comfort to the young prince, afraid that he would not understand what was happening around him.

When morning finally arrived, Ena and her children attended one last mass together at the Palacio Real and then bade goodbye to their servants. With Alfonsito carefully carried on a stretcher, the royal family departed, not knowing when or if they would ever return. Their journey was slow and emotionally exhausting. Newspapers reported that the 43-year-old queen appeared anxious and fatigued. Along the way, they stopped at El Escorial, which houses the crypt of Spanish monarchs. Ena had never liked this morbid place, but she had to have wondered if this would be her last visit, would she be forced to find some other final resting place? Hounded by peasants at one way station, where she found only a rock to rest upon, her demeanor remained calm and dignified. “Viva la republica,” one woman called out to her. “Long live whatever is best for my people,” the queen replied quietly.

In exile, King Alfonso XIII and Ena gave up the pretense of their marriage and separated. He had married the young British princess for her beauty and gentleness, but he never forgave her for the genetic disorder she passed on to their sons. Their very wedding day was filled with portents of the unhappiness that awaited their life together: a would-be assassin’s bomb left soldiers and horses mangled all around the bridal carriage.

The civil war they had sought to avoid ravaged Spain from 1936 to 1939, finally ending with the strong-arm dictatorship of General Francisco Franco. The dictator-for-life declared Spain a monarchy again in 1947, although he named no king. In the 1960s, he invited Alfonso and Ena’s grandson, Juan Carlos to live with his young Greek bride and their children in Spain. In 1969, Franco designated him as his heir. Upon Franco’s death in 1975, he became absolute king of Spain, but contrary to his predecessor’s plans, Juan Carlos transitioned Spain into a democracy with himself as a constitutional monarch.

Queen Ena also returned to Spain, although briefly, for the christening of her great-grandson Felipe in 1968—he is the current Prince of the Asturias. Ena died a year later in Lausanne. She returned at last to El Escorial in 1985, where her remains were placed next to her husband, who had been transferred their five years earlier, nearly 40 years after his death in exile.

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