She may be a “commoner” like our very own Duchess of Cambridge, but after two decades in the limelight, Queen Letizia of Spain has proven she was born for royal life. As she prepares to celebrate her 50th birthday, Graham Keeley reveals how she won over her critics – and her frosty in-laws
It was 2002 and, although she didn’t know it yet, 30-year-old journalist Letizia Ortiz Rocasolano’s life was about to change forever. Prince Felipe of Spain (now King Felipe VI) had watched her present on CNN Plus, a 24-hour Spanish-language news channel, and fell in love with her. Rumor has it that Felipe, then 34, asked another journalist and friend, Pedro Erquicia, to introduce him and the couple hit it off.
In a bid to avoid the glare of the Madrid media spotlight, Felipe and Letizia tried to keep their relationship a secret by spending time with Felipe’s sister, Princess Cristina, with Letizia telling friends she was dating a ” Diplomat “. At the end of 2003, however, they announced their engagement, with the future king telling his people: “I am very happy to be able to show how happy our engagement has made me and how much I am in love with Letizia”.
On May 22, 2004, around 25 million Spaniards watched Letizia – on a nearly five-meter-long train by Spanish fashion designer Manuel Pertegaz – marry her prince at Santa María la Real de la Almudena Cathedral in Madrid. They were captivated by her natural poise and beauty, but what they really wanted to know was, “Who is Letizia?”
Growing up in Oviedo, a small town in northern Spain, the daughter of a journalist and a nurse, Letizia was educated in public schools. She caused a minor scandal in 1998 by marrying a man ten years her senior (a teacher Letizia had met when she was just 16) but the couple divorced a year later. However, that was nothing compared to the scandals swirling around the Spanish royal family – particularly the activities of King Juan Carlos. After business revelations and financial embezzlement, the Spanish monarchy is plunged to its lowest level since its recovery in 1975 following the death of General Franco. But that didn’t mean the family was ready to be updated with a commoner. And a journalist, to boot.
When Letizia first arrived at the palace on the outskirts of Madrid, the reaction, insiders say, was painful to watch. “The beginnings were very difficult for her and on many occasions you could feel her misery,” explains Ana Romero, a Spanish royal expert. “King Juan Carlos clearly hated her, as did his sisters-in-law. Queen Sophia [Juan Carlos’s wife] was not very close [to her] That is.’
It was well known that Juan Carlos, who abdicated in 2014 after nearly 40 years as king, belittled Letizia to his courtiers by describing her as “the enemy of the house”. A courtier phoned me one day (in my capacity as the Spanish correspondent for a national newspaper) to tell me that Letizia had gone to a music festival. To the old official, it sounded like a shocking enough scandal to be worth reporting in foreign media. Letizia’s other criticisms often focused on her penchant for wearing ripped jeans and going to concerts. Spanish TV commentator Rosa Villacastín thinks it was pure snobbery. “She knew what a mortgage was, she was a normal person.”
Felipe and Letizia continued to innovate. They were going to have dinner in Malasaña, one of the trendiest neighborhoods in Madrid. Years later, even after Felipe ascended the throne, the couple left their daughters Leonor and Sofia in the palace and lined up with the public to see a film.
But that’s not to say royal life hasn’t changed Letizia. The media focused on her physique, forcing the royal palace to deny reports that she suffered from anorexia, and there are rumors that the operation she had to ‘correct a deviated septum’ was actually a rhinoplasty to reduce his protruding nose. Former colleague Carmen Enriquez says Letizia has gone from an outgoing and ambitious journalist to a more withdrawn one, due to the relentless media attention. “She became more cautious when she became a princess.”
The parallels between Letizia and the Duchess of Cambridge have not gone unnoticed. The two women represent the first generation of “commoners” allowed to marry into their royal families for love. Both are doting mothers (Letizia’s daughter Leonor, 16, attends UWC Atlantic College in Wales, affectionately nicknamed “Hogwarts for hippies” because the school is in a 12th-century castle; Sofia , 15, studies in a private school in Madrid. ). The fact that they are happy to champion big brands and wear outfits over and over also sets them apart. During a recent visit to Madrid, Letizia arrived in a Pedro del Hierro dress that she had worn three years prior. And then she stayed to chat with a group of gathered women.
‘That’s typical of her. She’s a perfectionist but also a professional,” said Mabel Galaz, a journalist who is writing a book about the Spanish royal family to mark Letizia’s 50th birthday in September.
When I met Letizia at a dinner party years ago, she initiated the conversation and surprised me by speaking in accentless English instead of Spanish. She made no grammar mistakes. Nervous to meet a queen, I joked that she spoke the language better than me.
Just like Kate, Letizia seems to be trying, alongside Felipe, to bring the monarchy into the 21st century. Unlike the British royal family, the Spanish royal family does not have a social media account, but they have downsized their household and implemented anti-corruption measures such as a ban on gifts.
Letizia believes it was her state visit to London in 2017 that finally made the rest of the Spanish royal family respect her. For King Felipe, it was an opportunity to meet the queen, a distant cousin, whom he affectionately calls Tia Lilibet – aunt Lilibet (see below). For Letizia, it was a chance to show that she is quite royal. As Ana Romero says: “The trip to London was important because even her detractors recognized that she had done a wonderful job in the most difficult place: the British court.
Now, in addition to a host of editors planning biographies for her milestone birthday, she is the star attraction of a documentary loosely based on The Crown titled Los Borbones (the Bourbóns is the name of the dynasty to which the Spanish royal family belongs).
This positive public relations is essential because public support in Spain for their royal family seems fragile. Last June, a poll for El Confidencial, a respected Spanish online news site, revealed that the nation is split on the monarchy with 39.1% backing it while 39.9% back a republic. And many believe they need to put Letizia front and center if the royals are still to be around when she turns 60.
As Mabel Galaz says, “She knew about the scandals…but she kept her distance from them. This earned him the respect of the people. Letizia is the secret weapon.
How the British and Spanish royals are connected
The Queen and King Felipe are third cousins once removed. They are both direct descendants of Queen Victoria; the first is a great great granddaughter and the second a great great great grandson. The Spanish link was formed in 1906 when Princess Victoria Eugenie of Battenberg (Victoria’s granddaughter) married Alfonso XIII, King of Spain. They had seven children including Felipe’s grandfather, Infante Juan.