01 January 2020

An Uncrowned Spanish Queen

Image by Mutari of a bust by R. Cuello
via Wikimedia Commons
Maria de las Mercedes. Mary, Virgin of Mercy. The Holy Mother who spreads her cloak to shelter and protect others. How could she have received such an ironic name when she could not even protect her family, her own children from that evil dictator, who seemed to delight in bringing misery into their lives. It was her older sister Maria de los Dolores, who was named for Our Lady of Sorrows, and yet more sorrow fell to her. It was her younger sister Maria de la Esperanza, who was named for Our Lady of Hope, but hope could there be for Maria de las Mercedes and her husband Juan in exile in Portugal, their sons Juan Carlos and Alfonso at the beckoned call of General Francisco Franco at military school in Spain.

At least they were safe again at home with the family to celebrate Holy Week. But, as always, only with Franco's permission. It was he who would decide whether Juan and Maria de las Mercedes could ever return and take up their rightful positions and King and Queen of Spain, but he seemed to prefer to string them along, offering glimmers of hope that also cut like a knife, like providing an education for the boys. They deserved to be educated in Spain, of course, but how difficult to have them far away while their father continued to be disrespected.

Juan Carlos was 18 now, just a breath away from adulthood. Alfonso was 14, still just a boy, lively and full of adventure. Their sister Pilar would be 20 soon, an age for a royal girl to start thinking seriously about marriage, but what would become of 16-year-old Margarita, whose blindness would almost certainly limit her options? With Easter just days away, however, it was a time to think about rebirth, renewal and hope. A moment for faith and miracles.

The family had attended the Maundy Thursday service together, marking Christ's last Passover supper with his disciples, the moment where he instituted the Holy Eucharist that the Spanish royals faithfully consumed after praying for their sins.

At home later that evening, the two boys were alone together admiring a gun that Franco had gifted to Alfonso. Suddenly, a shot rang out. Juan Carlos watched in horror as a bullet tore through his brother's familiar face.

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The official statement said that Alfonso had been cleaning the gun when it accidentally fired. Others close to the family told different stories. It was Juan Carlos who held the gun. Juan Carlos who did not know it was loaded. Juan Carlos who pulled the trigger that changed his family forever.

How does a mother bury her child? How had the hope of the Easter Vigil turned into the funeral of her baby?

Maria de las Mercedes world had always slipped precariously from one ignoble state to another, but nothing could match the tragedy of Alfonso. A descendant of both the Sicilian and Spanish branches of the royal Bourbon dynasty that had ruled France before the French Revolution as well as of the Orleans dynasty that ruled France for a time after that cataclysm, Maria de las Mercedes had been caught up in her countries' 20th century cataclysms. Her father Don Carlos had renounced his claims to the throne of Two Sicilies in order to marry the heiress to the Spanish throne, another Maria de las Mercedes, who held the heir's title as Princess of Asturias. When she died at just age 24, Don Carlos remained in Spain but remarried the young French Princess Louise of Orleans, who agreed to give the name of his first wife to their second daughter. He served with distinction in the Spanish Army, but at a time when the Spanish monarchy was losing its footing. Throughout the 1920s, Carlos's former brother-in-law King Alfonso XIII faced a lengthy war that led to alternating military dictatorships and republics. The King was forced to step down. Carlos' family left their beloved home in Seville for their first home in exile in Cannes and then in Paris.

For Maria de las Mercedes, who was in her early 20s, the shift must have been destabilizing but still exciting. In Paris, she even got to study at the Louvre. And, she was still able to attend all of the grand royal events of her extended family. When she was 24, she traveled to Rome to attend the wedding of King Alfonso's daughter, Infanta Beatriz. As so often happened at royal weddings, a royal romance was sparked that January in the Eternal City. Maria de las Mercedes encountered Beatriz's brother, Infante Juan, who was now heir to the nonexistent Spanish throne, following his two older brothers' renunciations of their rights. They had doubtlessly met numerous times before, but now, Juan was a dashing a figure preparing to take his officer's exams for the British Royal Navy.

Ten months later, royal wedding bells rang again in Rome, this time for Juan and Maria de las Mercedes. Nine months after that, Infanta Pilar was born in Cannes, soon followed by Juan Carlos, Margarita and baby Alfonso. By their sixth anniversary, they were the parents of four. Their nomadic life bouncing between France and Italy was ended by World War II. They took their young children to Switzerland to live in the peace of the neutral nation, but Juan's eye was always on the Spanish throne.

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Spain was now under the thumb of Franco, the dictator who seized power in 1939 following the Spanish Civil War. Juan had attempted to fight in that war but was arrested and sent back to France before he could cross the border. In 1941, he showed his defiance by taking on the title Count of Barcelona, but he had no means to return from exile nor to remove Franco. A few years later, however, Franco did something odd: he proclaimed Spain a monarchy. This did nothing to clarify Juan's position. In fact, Franco often seemed to thwart rather than support the return of the rightful monarch. Instead, he began grooming Juan's sons. By then, the family had moved to Portugal.

Following that tragic Easter of 1956, things escalated quickly. Grief-stricken, 18-year-old Juan Carlos returned to Spain and to Franco's influence in order to finish his education and begin his military training. The distance between father and son grew to a great chasm in 1969 when Franco named Juan Carlos his heir and gave him the title Prince of Spain. Only Maria de las Mercedes could be their intermediary, a suitable though heartrending task for a princess named for the Mother of Mercy. As Juan Carlos was integrated into Franco's plans, the family remained strained.

By then, Juan Carlos had a wife and young children of his own. When Franco finally died in 1975, he assumed the dictator's mantle but Franco's grooming had not truly taken root. Within a few years, the young king had altered Spain into a constitutional monarchy. Maria de las Mercedes and Juan were finally able to return home, where they could enjoy their grandchildren. But, Juan was in no hurry to surrender to his rights. It took him two years to renounce his claims to the throne that his son was transforming. When Juan passed away in 1993, his son had him buried with all of the pomp and rites of the crown he never wore.

Unfortunately, Maria de las Mercedes' return to Spain was marred by personal pain and injury. In her 70s, she suffered a couple of accidents resulting in a broken hip and then a broken leg that ultimately forced her to spend her last years in a wheelchair. Nevertheless, she celebrated every new grandchild and great-grandchild and family wedding. Now a true matriarch, her family flocked to her whenever they could, often spending their holidays together on the Spanish island of Lanzarote.

As they gathered to celebrate the new year there in 2000, sadness once again visited a joyous family. The Italian princess who had been born two days before Christmas in 1910 suffered a heart attack and passed away on the second day of new millennium. Maria de las Mercedes had spent much of her life in transition, had suffered a mother's greatest pain, and she had never worn the crown her husband intended for her, but she had earned the many mercies afforded to a great-grandmother at the head of a numerous family.

Twenty years later, her three surviving children are in their 80s while her grandson Felipe sits on the Spanish throne. The future of the dynasty, so precarious through much her life, seems well-secured.

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