Victoria Eugenie: The English Queen of Spain

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In honor of King Felipe VI and Queen Letizia’s upcoming trip to the UK for an official state visit at the invitation of the Queen, we’re taking a beat to take a look at the ties between the two royal families, of which there are a few. While French and German blood have permeated the English line far and above everything else, there have been a few notable Anglo-Spanish alliances over the course of history.

The first was that of Eleanor of Castile to Edward I in 1254. Then there was the famous union of Katherine of Aragon and Henry VIII, cemented in 1509. Finally, there was the inauspicious marriage of their daughter, Mary I, to Philip II of Spain in 1554. These were supplemented by the reverse, too – English princess who became Castilian or Spanish queen consorts. Henry II’s daughter, Eleanor, married Alfonso VIII in 1177. And Edward III’s granddaughter, Katherine of Lancaster, ended a civil war by marrying  Henry III in 1388.

The last of these matches worth noting was not between an “English princess,” per se, but she was an Englishwoman all the same, and one with deep-rooted familial ties to the Houses of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha and Windsor. Her name was Victoria Eugenie of Battenberg and she was the only daughter of Princess Beatrice, youngest daughter of Queen Victoria. She was born on October 24, 1887 at Balmoral Castle in Scotland, the same year her grandmother was celebrating 50 years on the throne. Victoria referred to her as “my little Jubilee grandchild.”

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Ena’s parents, Henry and Beatrice

She was joined in the nursery by her elder brother, Alexander, and two younger brothers, Leopold and Maurice, the older of whom suffered from hemophilia. The Battenberg siblings had a unique experience compared to their first cousins. While the Queen had been a strict mother and maintained a rather severe monitoring of the behavior of her older grandchildren, the younger generation had an easier ride. Bear in mind that given Victoria had nine children; her eldest gave birth to her first child in 1859 while her youngest gave birth to her last in 1891. In some cases, first cousins were born after one’s own children.

Princess Beatrice, too, had a unique relationship with her mother. Only four when her father, Prince Albert, died, she had the distinct experience of only knowing her mother in mourning and, unlike her siblings, she lacked the memories of a more idyllic domesticity. For whatever reason, the Queen doted on Beatrice, but she also expected her to be the daughter that remained unmarried and at her side. Beatrice had other ideas, no doubt swayed by the experiences of her sisters and sisters-in-law, all but one of whom were married with children (Louise’s marriage was childless).

And while Beatrice showed herself to be an accommodating woman in many respects – she did, after all, patiently attend on her mother for years – when it came to securing the marriage she wanted, her stubbornness rivaled that of the Queen. In 1885, Beatrice and Prince Henry of Battenberg were married near Osborne House on the Isle of Wight, and their only daughter, Victoria Eugenie, known as “Ena,” joined them two years later.

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Queen Victoria and Ena

The Battenbergs, unlike Beatrice’s sisters, lived with the Queen in her residences – a compromise reached between Victoria and Beatrice. Therefore, Ena grew up much like her mother had, moving between Buckingham Palace, Balmoral Castle and Osborne House, and seeing first hand how the monarch lived. Despite her father’s German ancestry, she was first and foremost British.

But the close attention that Ena received from her grandmother was apparent when she fell from her horse at the age of six while riding on the grounds of Osborne. The Queen’s letters and diary entries are full of updates on Ena’s progress, from the physician’s worry that there was a brain haemorrhage to her eventual recovery and ability to rejoin the household.

The idyll was shattered on January 20, 1896 when Prince Henry unexpectedly died of Typhoid Fever on his way to Africa to serve alongside the British in the Ashanti Expedition. His loss devastated his young family, including his adoring wife and the rest of the British Royal Family. His death also brought Victoria and Ena even closer, Victoria having also lost a father and her own husband having died of Typhoid.

Five years later Queen Victoria died and the Battenbergs moved out of Buckingham Palace to make room for Beatrice’s brother, Edward VII, and his wife, Alexandra of Denmark. Beatrice and her children moved to Kensington Palace, beginning a longstanding tradition of KP housing the sisters, aunts and other female relations of the monarch.

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By 1905, Ena was 18, beautiful and a prized asset on the European marriage market. Meanwhile, King Alfonso XIII of Spain was in London for a brief seven-day trip at the end of a larger European tour. Nineteen, king and a bachelor, who Alfonso might marry had reached fevered speculation and there were increasing rumors that the princess would be British, due, in part, to the plethora of Victoria’s granddaughters. While Ena’s cousin, Patricia of Connaught, was the favored choice, several of their cousins were paraded before the King, most of whom were well-aware this was their best shot at becoming queen. Ena, reportedly, wasn’t one of them.

As Julia Gelardi wrote in “Born to Rule,” her history of Queen Victoria’s grandchildren who became queen consorts:

“When the hot-blooded Spanish king laid eyes on Ena, the effect was intoxicating – and disconcerting. She immediately succumbed. Even years later, the memory of that moment stayed fresh in Ena’s mind. She recalled being seized by a sudden sense of embarrassment […] Alfonso’s penetrating gaze made a strong impact and she ‘blushed shamelessly.'”

Ena’s cousin, Patricia, proved herself unwilling to marry Alfonso and when the King saw Ena again a few days later, he began a full court press. Ena responded positively. On his final evening in London, the two met at a ball at Buckingham Palace – Alfonso spoke poor English, Ena no Spanish and so they landed on French. At the end of the evening Alfonso told her that he hoped she wouldn’t forget him – her literal-minded response was: “It is very difficult to forget the visit of a foreign sovereign.”

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Ena and Alfonso around 1906

Over the next few months the couple exchanged letters and Ena evolved from a reserved and slightly awe-struck young woman to one in love. Alfonso, for his part, had already made it clear to his mother and councilors that Ena was his first and only choice of bride. Ena began working on her Spanish and they planned a reunion in southern France. They saw each other again in Biarritz in January 1906 and Ena, accompanied by Beatrice, finally joined the Spanish Royal Family in San Sebastian.

Not everyone, however, was pleased by the match. In Spain there was significant grumbling that Ena was Protestant. While she could convert – and, indeed, would have to if she expected to be queen – her background was considered inconsistent with Spanish tradition. There was also the issue as to whether she would bring hemophilia into Spanish RF since Queen Victoria had introduced the disease into Europe through the birth of her son, Prince Leopold, and her daughters and granddaughters had passed it on to their sons – most notably Ena’s cousin, Alexandra of Hesse, who married Russia’s Tsar Nicholas II.

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Alfonso’s mother, Maria Christina of Austria

On the British side there was some concern about a nice Protestant girl like Ena being thrown into the ornate splendor of Madrid and being forced to renounce her faith. Senior members of the Church of England voiced their disapproval to Ena’s uncle, King Edward, but the arrangements went forward. In March, Ena converted to Catholicism, banning Alfonso from the ceremony because she wanted to be able to focus on the task at hand. She was criticized on both sides, for having too easily given up her faith and for being a convert who only went through the motions for a crown. She wrote to Alfonso:

“I find myself in an insupportable and cruel position. The English criticize me for becoming Catholic and the Spanish believe I am not sincere. It seems to me that I should not live in a country in which I am not loved. Upon giving you my heart, I gave you my life and I hopelessly see from your letters that you believe I have no wish to see you.”

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Two days later a treaty was ratified between Spain and the United Kingdom, formalizing an engagement. The wedding took place on May 31, 1907 in Madrid and was attended by Beatrice and Princes Alexander, Leopold and Maurice, as well as the Prince and Princess of Wales (the future George V & Queen Mary). The celebrations were marred by an assassination attempt made on Alfonso and Ena as they rode through the streets back towards the Palace, Ena’s life spared by turning her head at the last moment when a bomb exploded, her dress stained with the blood of the nearest guard who was instantly killed. It made for an inauspicious start to married life.

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The 1906 assassination attempt

Within a few months Ena was pregnant. She gave birth to a son, Alfonso, on May 10, 1907. The birth itself may have been traumatic for the mother less for the labor and more the Spanish etiquette that dictate it nearly take place in public. Just outside the birthing chamber stood 150 or so men from the government and foreign courts, and as soon as the Prince was born, the doors were swung open to verify his royal blood.

Eight days later the infant was baptized at the Royal Palace and Spain rejoiced. Ena’s mother, Princess Beatrice, wrote:

“No words can described the intense joy that this happy event causes the dear young parents & all the classes in the country here. My dear daughter passed through her hours of great suffering most bravely & is a very tender mother, hardly liking to have the child out of her arms. He is a splendid strong boy & thank God both he & my daughter are doing as well as possible. I shall find it hard to tear myself away from them … I have had such a delightfully undisturbed three months with my dear child, & it is such a comfort to feel how happy & contented she is in her new house & how this additional joy has come to complete all.”

The happiness was short-lived when, days later, doctors circumcised the baby and discovered he wouldn’t stop bleeding – he was a hemophiliac. That Ena ran the risk of carrying the disease and passing it along to her children had been well-known prior to her marriage – indeed, it had been part of what Alfonso was cautioned against by his family and ministers. But when those fears turned out to be realized, Alfonso, who had been deeply in love with his wife, abruptly turned on her.

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Just 13 months after Prince Alfonso’s birth, Ena gave birth to a second son, Jaime. By then, cracks were beginning to form in the marriage. A few weeks after Jaime’s birth, Ena woke to find Alfonso gone. She wrote to him:

“I was sad yesterday upon going to bed at the knowledge that we would not see each other for a week. You left as if you did not say goodbye […] Our goodbye was terribly hurried and I did not have the faintest idea why you walked by way of the garden like you did so that I could not reach the front to see you until someone finally came to tell me that you had left much earlier.”

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Later on, again separated, she wrote to her husband of the children’s progress:

“My dear Alfonso: I was pleased to receive your letter. Jaime is now better but still quite pale. After the pains the poor boy suffered. Alfonso is much better and quite fun. While you are away, I spend a great deal of my time with the boys and that is how it seems I console myself from your absences. Last night was very cold and the bed seemed terribly large and vacant. I longed to have you next to me so I can rock you [to sleep] and have you warm me […] I kiss you with all my affection, I remain your long-devoted wife, Ena.”

Another fault line in Ena’s arrival was the presence of her mother-in-law, the Dowager Queen Maria Christina. Maria Christina was of Austrian descent, the daughter of Archduke Karl Ferdinand. She had married King Alfonso XII in 1879 and given birth to two daughters when he died in 1885. Pregnant with her third child, the throne was empty for several months until she gave birth to a son, named for his father, who immediately became king. Maria Christina ruled as regent until Alfonso reached his majority in 1902 and she retained considerable influence on her son and the Spanish court well after Ena’s arrival – indeed, she had been one of the figures who had cautioned against the marriage.

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Ena’s predicament was further complicated by her poor handle of the language. It took her six months to understand others when they spoke to her and 18 to be able to converse in Spanish herself. Alfonso never acted as his wife’s defender or champion, instead blaming her for areas in which she faltered, all stemming from his resentment over his son. Henri Valloton, a close friend to both, wrote:

“Alfonso XIII thre the blame at his wife for the illness […] he could not resign himself [to the fact that] his heir could have contracted an ailment which her family had, and not his. It was unjust, he himself recognized it, but he could not think in any other manner.”

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A third child, a daughter named Beatriz after Ena’s mother, was born on June 22, 1909, serving to keep speculation as to the health of the marriage at bay. The Spanish and European press were obsessed with Ena, raising her up to a Princess Diana-like figure of the Edwardian Era. Ena maintained a sense of humor about it, laughing off the praise she received for being the “most beautiful woman in the world.”

Around this time she wrote to Mary, Princess of Wales:

“We now are living in Madrid for some weeks, in this grand palace in which I feel like a guest of honour, although little by little I struggle to make a place for myself. I cannot leave my rooms without causing a real commotion and the racket of the famous guards, stationed in the passageways and steps of the monumental stairs. When I go close [to the guards] it makes them stand to attention, hit the marble floors with their halberds and shout: Long live the Queen!

“I long [for] the far-off days of Osborne where I was simply a young woman full of life who wanted to ride and have fun and also I wish to return to the months when Alfonso and I were in the palace of La Granja, a dreamy place where I hope to meet with you not too far off one day.

“In Madrid I see much less of my beloved husband, naturally, but the days they make for me are eternal. I pass the afternoons like the old ladies of Wight, embroidering or dedicated to my favorite pastime, which is reading something which Alfonso does not share and which surprisingly, I am grateful for, because when he is with me there is never a book which we can  both find appealing between ourselves. I miss the solitary walks with him, when we would speak of simple things that […] for others would be trivial. Our lengthy moments of intimacy, here, are spent in the afternoon when alone together we take tea. Here the atmosphere amounts to an inhospitable one.”

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In 1910, Edward VII died and Alfonso departed Madrid for London to attend the state funeral. Ena remained behind, pregnant with her fourth child, who turned out to be a stillborn son named Ferdinand. Maria Christina sent a telegram to Alfonso to let him know the news, telling him he could be “completely calm over Ena’s state of health.” She had suspected something was wrong during the pregnancy, but was advised to carry it to term so as not to create complications that would prohibit her from later births.

It proved an effective method. On December 12, 1911 she gave birth to a second daughter, baptized Maria Christina after Alfonso’s mother. On June 20, 1913, she gave birth to a fourth son, Juan, and on October 24, 1914, a fifth and final son, Gonzalo. Her last pregnancy, in 1918, resulted in a miscarriage.

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The health of all of her children was uneven, a situation that did nothing to help Ena’s marriage of her popularity in Spain. The same year as the stillbirth, her son Jaime began to suffer from acute ear pain. The surgery to fix it went poorly and he was left deaf and mute – all the more devastating because his health had been a reassurance in the face of his elder brother’s hemophilia. Ena’s youngest son, Gonzalo, was also discovered to be a hemophiliac shortly after his birth, leaving the couple with one truly healthy son, Juan. Their daughters, meanwhile, could very well be carriers of the disease, which caused uneasiness.

Ena’s popularity, which had been buoyed by her youth and beauty at first, began to wane. She lacked a certain sentiment that the Spanish expected, but was wholly foreign to her British heritage. She was perceived as glacial and her “sensitivities,” such as finding bullfighting grotesque weren’t understood or tolerated. Part of this stemmed from how she approached her sons’ illness, which is to say she maintained a preternatural calm facade to the world, refusing to become hysterical over worry. Some of this may have stemmed from the presence of Juan, but more likely it had to do with Ena’s nature, which was reserved. Perhaps, too, given Alfonso’s violent reaction to the health of their eldest son, she oscillated in the opposite direction, refusing to give it too much weight.

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With her child-birthing years behind her and her popularity waning, it was little comfort that Alfonso began to stray more and more frequently, his infidelities becoming well-known through Madrid and often seeping out into the rest of Europe. At one point his own mother noted in a letter, “If you had to pick out all the grandchildren credited to me, you would not live long enough to be able to do so.” By 1914, however, the matter of foremost concern was the outbreak of World War I, a situation that split Europe, splintering the alliances cemented by most royal families’ familial ties through Queen Victoria.

Throughout the war, Spain remained neutral, but it was nevertheless affected by the discord. Many in the family sympathized with the Central Powers, including Queen Maria Christina, and while Alfonso is believed to have veered in that direction during these years as well, it was understood to be on behalf of Austria not Germany. Ena, on the other hand, was staunchly loyal to Britain, creating an uneasy dynamic behind palace walls. In the rest of Spain, however, a growing population and a strained economy was giving rise to radicalism, the fringes of which supported the abolition of the monarchy altogether.

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In 1915 the war became personal, too, when it led to the death of Ena’s youngest brother, Maurice. Edward, Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII) took a photo of his grave, which Queen Mary sent to Ena. She responded:

“What a terrible winter this has been for everyone & I so often think of you all in these sad and anxious times […] It is very hard to be away from my old home at such a time as this and especially so since Maurice’s death when I know that Mama is so sad and needs me so much. I would give anything to be able to go to her but that I fear will not be possible for a long time to come.”

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It was a great relief to Ena when Britain and its allies were victorious in 1918, however the victory was undermined by the instability rampant across Europe, including the abolition of the Russian monarchy and the assassination of the Romanovs. The direction in which Spain was going was debatable, but one that became murkier when, in 1923, Alfonso and Ena traveled to Italy during the tenure of Benito Mussolini and were entertained lavishly. Years later, Alfonso admitted that he failed to grasp the potency of growing fascism.

And while Ena insisted that she never meddled in politics, she did have a certain influence over her husband, despite their troubled marriage. Their daughter, Beatriz, later confirmed that Alfonso would turn to his wife for her opinion from time to time and he often considered it, a reality that no doubt helped moderate the turbulent post-war years.

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The 1920s were also marked by two other events: One was the removal of Prince Alfonso from the rest of the family to his own separate establishment. Remarkably, it was the same tactic taken by George V and Queen Mary in Britain for their youngest son, Prince John, however it was notable in that the move was not followed by frequent visits by either parent. The consensus is that Alfonso, still upset by his son’s health, could not bring himself to visit and Ena followed his lead out of necessity for the sake of her marriage. A marriage that was shaken by a second event, the rise of Alfonso’s most serious mistress, Carmen Ruiz Moragas, who gave birth to two of his children in 1925 and 1929.

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War in Morocco, a failing economy and rising political uncertainty led to the military coup of General Miguel Primo de Rivera, 2nd Marqués de Estella, who ruled as a dictator from 1923 until 1930 with Alfonso’s support. In January 1930, Estella was forced to resign and Alfonso, who had so closely aligned himself with the man’s politics, was in the difficult position of trying to distance himself from the failure. He couldn’t and within months it was clear that the army wasn’t loyal and the Republicans (those who supported the end of the monarchy) were in power. Alfonso resigned.

The decision was prompted by the King’s desire not to see the country devolve into civil war, and an understanding that the people were so badly fractured that the only way to ensure this didn’t happen was to bow to the results of the latest election. On April 14, 1931 Alfonso took leave of Ena and their children, preparing to depart Spain. He paused on his way out of the Palace before a portrait of his mother, who had died in 1929, and saluted. He then boarded a cruiser for France and, after over 40 years as king, left Spain, never to return.

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Ena was overheard remarking to her attendants, bemused by the abrupt departure of her husband, “I thought I had done well.”

For two days Ena and her children prepared to join him, their plans waylaid by mass confusion as the revolution played out in the streets around them. Audible chants calling for her and Alfonso’s deaths permeated the Palace walls and, given the violent end of the Russian Royal Family, there was a distinct fear that they might be assassinated before leaving France. They finally departed on April 16th, some of Ena’s final words being, “The King has not abdicated; we do not know what is going to happen to us, but I feel sure it will turn out for the best.”

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Ena and her eldest son, Alfonso

The New York Times reported at the time:

“She has never been very popular with her people, and never was she left more alone than on this day of her final departure […] One curtain was raised and a lone hand appeared through it. The hand was that of the Queen, her last farewell to a land that had never learned affection for her.”

She, herself, said:

“I have a tranquil conscience of having always stayed outside political divisions, of having treated everyone with the same courtesy and of having dedicated all my efforts to the organization of charitable welfare in Spain. Nevertheless, I have the feeling that I have never really been loved, or having never been popular.”

Once in exile and outside of the spotlight that accompanied ruling, the royal marriage completely broke down and Alfonso and Ena unofficially separated. The straw that broke the camel’s back was Alfonso accusing Ena of infidelity, an act that would have been completely out of character for her. She responded to her husband, “I choose them [the Duke and Duchess of Leceras, the former of whom Ena was accused of having an affair with] and never want to see your ugly face again.” Alfonso was horrified and the breach was never repaired.

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Prince Alfonso at his first wedding

Nor did the drama stop there. On June 21, 1933 their eldest son, Alfonso, married a Cuban commoner, Edelmira Sampedro y Robato, and renounced his claim to the throne (a move made easier, no doubt, by living in exile). Ena attended the wedding, but her husband did not. They exchanged curt, if poignant, notes:

Ena: Alfonso is our eldest son and you should attend his wedding.

Alfonso: Ena, I have lost this son forever.

The young couple were married for four years, divorcing in 1937. He remarried two months later before divorcing again in 1938. He died, childless, on September 6, 1938.

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Prince Alfonso

Ena’s other hemophiliac son, Gonzalo, died in a car crash in Austria on August 13, 1934. The two deaths left Jaime and Juan, the former of whom had gone through the extraordinary step of renouncing his rights in 1933, the year Alfonso renounced his to marry. The move, followed by Gonzalo’s death, meant Juan became the sole male heir of his parents.

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Prince Gonzalo

Of this time, Ena later said:

“The burdens of State, the difficulty of living with a King whose faults were as extreme as his duties were little compared with my grief in losing two sons, the eldest and the youngest. Love rarely dies a sudden death, especially when it is a maternal love. And today I am obliged to close my eyes sometimes and try not to remember.”

Beatriz married Alessandro Torlonia, 5th Prince of Civitella-Cesi in 1935, a wedding that wasn’t attended by Ena due to Alfonso’s presence. Beatriz spent her adulthood primarily in Rome, had four children and died at the age of 93 in 2002.

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Beatriz on her wedding day

Maria Christina married Enrico Eugenio Marone-Cinzano, 1st Count Marone in 1940, also renouncing her claim to the Spanish throne in order to do so. The couple resided in Italy and had four daughters. She died at the age of 85 in 1996 and is buried in Turin.

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Maria Christina

But as Alfonso ended up residing in Rome and thus being geographically close to his daughters, Ena saw her children’s marriages and independence as a sign she could finally return to her beloved England. She bought a house in London in 1934 and while she traveled frequently to the continent to see her children, it became her primary residence. In 1936, George V’s death was followed quickly with the abdication of Edward VIII and the subsequent accession of George VI. Europe was also careening towards World War II and the political upset made the potential return of the Spanish monarchy a distinct possibility.

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Ena and her daughters

Juan, now Alfonso’s heir, was touted as the next king. In 1935, during the wedding festivities of Beatriz, Juan met Princess María Mercedes of Bourbon-Two Sicilies and within months had married her. Between 1936 and 1941, the couple had four children, two sons and two daughters, including an heir, Juan Carlos.

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Ena and Alfonso’s four sons

To strengthen Juan’s claim, Alfonso formally renounced his own claims from his sickbed. His poor health by 1940 having prompted Ena to travel to Rome, though they still maintained a separation. He eventually expired on February 28, 1941.

The following year Ena was forced to leave England thanks to Mussolini’s government accusing her of spying. She reportedly replied, “I am not a Mata Hari.” She re-located to Lausanne, Switzerland at the Hotel Royal, but continued to make regular visits throughout World War II. She also stayed in close contact with Juan and his wife, choosing to have their children called her “Gangan,” as she had called Queen Victoria in her youth. Ironically, she also took it upon herself to teach young Juan Carlos how to speak Spanish properly, afraid that his upbringing in exile would make him sound like a foreigner should he ever ascend the throne.

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Juan and his wife

In Spain the rise of Francisco Franco made the return of the Royal Family a touchy subject, though the country had been declared a monarchy once more in 1947. Ena remained in Switzerland, purchasing a villa and creating a permanent residence for herself. It was from there she monitored the subject of restoration closely, worried that tension between Franco and Juan would derail his eventual accession. Juan Carlos, meanwhile, was shipped at the age of 10 (1948) to Spain to be educated, the clear implication being his education should be Spanish if he was to inherit the throne.

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Juan and Juan Carlos

Ena was livid when Jaime, her second son, decided in 1964 to reverse his decision to renounce his claim, afraid Franco would use it as justification to bypass Juan or Juan Carlos. Nevertheless, she remained close to Juan Carlos, who wrote to her well into adulthood. In 1962 he married Princess Sophia of Greece and Denmark and when the couple finally produced a son, Felipe, in 1968 Ena traveled from Switzerland to Spain for his baptism, setting foot in the country for the first time since she left for exile in 1931.

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Juan with his wife and children

Months later, on April 15, 1969, Ena died at her home in Lausanne and was buried at the nearby church.  Had she lived only a few more months she would have seen Franco finally decide on a succession plan, one that bypassed Juan for his son, Juan Carlos, who was named heir apparent. He ascended the Spanish throne on November 25, 1975, completing the restoration of the monarchy. Juan was given the title of Count of Barcelona.

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Juan Carlos ruled as king until 2014 when he abdicated in favor of his son, Felipe. Felipe ascended the throne as King Felipe VI, while his wife, Letizia, became queen.

Ena’s body, meanwhile, was re-interred in 1985 in Madrid alongside that of her husband and three of her sons.

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