King Juan Carlos I of Spain celebrated his 75th birthday at the beginning of January.

2012 was, to quote a British Royal commenting on her own experiences in 1992, an annus horribilis for the Spanish King, but despite controversy and criticism, the Spanish Royal Family is still much admired by Europeans and others from around the world.

Until recently, public opinion in Spain was very loyal to the monarchy. Traditionally the King and his family have behaved much more transparently than other European royal families and been viewed as rather more down to earth. Juan Carlos became the King of Spain in 1975, two days after the death of General Franco who had himself appointed Juan Carlos as Prince of Spain several years earlier.

Despite what some may regard as an inauspicious beginning, King Juan Carlos soon won over the Spanish people by demonstrating his understanding of, and empathy with the reality of how harsh life was in Spain when he eschewed the large, regal and ornate Palacio Real choosing to live instead in the more modest La Zarzuela Palace.

Hailed to be responsible for the revival of democracy in modern Spain, King Juan Carlos worked tirelessly in the early days to unite the Spanish people and ensure a better future for them. He was also very successful in creating, maintaining and strengthening international relations between Spain and Latin American countries, and has frequently been voted the most popular Ibero-American leader.

Members of the Spanish Royal Family were not subject to as much media intrusion as other European monarchs and, in fact, are forbidden from answering questions or making unplanned comments to the press to this day. However, the romance and subsequent marriage of journalist and presenter Letizia Ortiz to Prince Felipe (son of King Juan Carlos) increased the public’s fervour to know more about them and warmed the hearts of spectators across the world when it hit international headlines.

Within Spain, there is no doubt that the King’s popularity has fallen drastically over the past 12 months. His ill-timed elephant hunting trip to Botswana not only angered those struggling to make ends meet but also jeopardised his working relationship with the WWF (his honorary presidency of the Spanish WWF was later rescinded) and he subsequently received little sympathy when he fell fracturing his hip in three places. In addition, investigations are continuing into claims that his son-in-law, Iñaki Urdangarin, embezzled public funds, and during the past few days speculation has been reignited over the King’s relationship with the German Princess Corinna, also connected with Urdangarin.

In a television interview broadcast just before his birthday, King Juan Carlos attempted to reconnect with the Spanish people by expressing his concerns over high unemployment rates among young people today. Earlier in the year he demonstrated his perceived understanding of the austerity and solidarity currently affecting his countrymen by cutting his and his family’s salaries but still, he has some way to go before he will regain the nation’s complete confidence as the King who united the people. In spite of this he can reflect on an eventful and successful reign as a modern monarch, and remains one of the best loved heads of state in the world.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia א