Sofia, the strength of the Spanish monarchy

It's probably fair to say that Sofia, Queen of Spain has had happier birthdays. As she celebrates turning 79, no doubt with friends and family around her, she's not just contemplating another year done and another to come. Her royal house is facing one of its toughest tests to date with many months of tumult ahead. In the midst of this, Sofia remains the strength of the Spanish monarchy.

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That can be seen in the comments left on the official Twitter account. In the weeks since the disputed independence referendum in Catalonia and King Felipe VI's controversial speech in which he didn't mention the almost 900 injuries incurred as Guardia Civil tried to close polling stations on October 1st, the replies to the tweets sent by @CasaReal have been less than flattering. With one exception. The message shared as Queen Sofia presented an award was followed by comments about how well she carries out her role. While the Spanish monarchy attracts the ire of those angry with the whole establishment, Sofia is singled out as an exception and an example. She remains the bedrock of her family's fortune.

But then Sofia is used to toughness. Despite some glittering highs (remember when the Spanish royals were the most popular in Europe with ratings that made everyone else as green as emeralds?), the sea has been far from smooth for this former Olympic sailor. Take her birthday exactly a decade ago. On November 2nd 2007, the Queen of Spain appeared to have it all. Her royal house was popular, all three of her children were married and she had eight grandchildren around her including a six month old infanta who shared her name. And yet the smiles hid cracks that had already taken hold. Just days later it was announced that the eldest child of King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia, the Infanta Elena, was separating from her husband, Jaime de Marichalar, after 12 years of marriage. In the decade that followed, her younger daughter, Infanta Cristina, faced court action while the monarchy's popularity ratings tumbled. The unexpected abdication of King Juan Carlos in June 2014 has been followed by three years of ups and downs with 2017 ending on a low.

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But each decade of this royal life, which began on November 2nd 1937 in Greece, has had more ups and downs that most. The first ten years of Sofia's life saw her family head into exile from Greece only to return in 1946. Seventy years ago, as Sofia turned 9, her father, King Paul, was beginning a reign that would be bumpy to say the least. By the time she turned 29 in 1967, her brother had taken the throne as King Constantine and was just weeks away from going into exile after a coup earlier that same year. Sofia was by then married to Juan Carlos and living in Madrid in a Spain ruled by the dictator, Francisco Franco. In 1977, as she turned 39, Sofia was Queen of Spain and the country was completing the path to democracy. Just weeks earlier elections had led to the re-establishment of the Generalitat in Catalonia, paving the way for the region to become autonomous. Now, forty years later, the region is at the heart of the Spanish monarchy's agenda once again.

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There's no doubt that behind the scenes. Sofia will be as much of a support to her son as she has been to the father, brother and husband who were all kings before him. Sofia is in some ways the last of a generation, the final consort to boast such royal links, the last queen to have been raised so regally and lived so dramatically. And yet it is her ability to reach out to others that have made her such a success. Her passion for issues like research into Alzheimers has been noted around the world (she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for her work in that area) while her constant smile and gentle grace have won her fans far and wide. Now, as she heads into the final year of her seventies, she must help reinvent royalty all over again as she stands behind a son who is facing criticism on many fronts and who is Head of State of a country facing a political crisis not seen in Europe for many years. But Felipe has a secret weapon and one that has steered the royal ship through choppier waters before. Sofia is and perhaps always will be the strength of the Spanish monarchy.


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