Who is Queen Sofia of Spain?

Who is Queen Sofia of Spain? And why was the woman who married philandering King Juan Carlos, caught in tears on camera?

  • Queen Sofia, was born into the royal family of Greece and Denmark in 1938
  • It is understood she hasn’t shared a bed with her husband since 1971
  • For all the latest Royal news, pictures and videos click here

Among the many distinguished guests gathered at the Zarzuela Palace for the  constitutional ceremony marking the 18th birthday of Leonor, heir to the Spanish throne, there were two rather notable absentees.

Neither Leonor’s grandfather, King Emeritus Juan Carlos, nor her grandmother, Queen Sofia were present for an occasion which, for all the formality, was also rather personal. 

This was their eldest granddaughter’s coming of age as she swore loyalty to the nation she will one day rule.

Public interest – dubbed Leonormania – has been huge in Spain. The young heiress is a unifying figure in an otherwise rather divided country. 

Spanish King Juan Carlos I and Queen Sofia visiting Ceuta in 2007.  Juan Carlos abdicated in favour of his son Felipe in 2014

Queen Sofia of Spain broke down in tears at her latest appearance (pictured) – amid reports she had not been  invited to her granddaughter Princess Leonor’s swearing-in ceremony 

Leonor, Princess of Asturias, Queen Letizia, Queen Sofia and Infanta Sofia pictured leaving a restaurant in August 2022 in Palma de Mallorca where the Bourbon royals have their summer palace

There is considerable interest in Leonor’s grandmother, too,  and in what appears to be an occasionally troubled relationship with her daughter-in-law, Queen Letizia. 

Only yesterday Sofia was caught on camera in tears – a move piquing international curiosity, not least as it came amid news that she would be excluded from the occasion.

Quite why the 84-year-old was so emotional is unclear. 

She had been paying tribute to a friend of hers, the wheelchair-bound physicist Emilio Lora-Tamayo as he was named honorary rector for life by the Camilo José Cela University in Madrid.

And there was, as it happened, a convincing diplomatic explanation for why her son, King Felipe VI of Spain had not invited her.

Sources in Zarzuela Palace told Spanish newspaper El País that it was  ‘so as not to make distinctions with Juan Carlos I’.

Which is to say, Her troubled husband, ex-king, and insatiable lothario is in disgrace, spending most of his time enjoying Arab hospitality in the gulf. 

With Juan Carlos not invited, her son had taken the decision to leave Sofia’s name off the list also, although it is understood she was invited to the family celebrations afterwards. 

Palace sources were reported as saying the ‘solution was closed by mutual agreement from the first moment’ between Juan Carlos and Felipe. 

Born Princess Sophia of Greece and Denmark on November 2, 1938, at Tatoi Palace in Athens, Greece, she is the eldest daughter of King Paul of Greece and Frederica of Hanover.

A member of the Greek branch of the Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg dynasty, her great-great-grandmother is also Queen Victoria.

This made her a relative of both her friend the late Queen Elizabeth an Prince Philip. 

Because Sofia’s family were forced into exile during the Second World War, she spent part of her childhood in Egypt and South Africa.

She finished her education at the prestigious Schloss Salem boarding school in Southern Germany, and then studied childcare, music and archaeology in Athens.

Sofia also studied at Fitzwilliam College, a constituent college of the University of Cambridge.

A keen yachtswoman, the royal represented her home country of Greece as a reserve member of the Gold Medal-winning sailing team at the 1960  Summer Olympics alongside her brother Constantine (heir to the now deposed Greek monarchy).

Sofía met Infante Juan Carlos, her paternal third cousin, in 1954 on a cruise in the Greek Islands and again at the Duke of Kent’s wedding in 1961.

They married less than a year later in Athens at the Catholic Cathedral of Saint Dionysius. 

Upon their marriage, she converted from Greek Orthodoxy to Catholicism and changed her name from Sophia to Sofia. 

The 1962 wedding of Prince Juan Carlos and Princess Sofia of Greece and Denmark in Athens

Prince Juan Carlos of Spain with his fiancee Princess Sofia of Greece after the announcement of their engagement

The Spanish royals with their children Cristina, Felipe and Elena on holiday at the Miravent Palace in Palma de Mallorca in 1976

Prince Juan Carlos of Spain and Princess Sofia of Greece pose with their children in 1973

Soon after, in 1973, the monarchy in Greece was abolished.

Together, she and Juan Carlos have three children: Infanta Elena, Infanta Cristina, and King Felipe. 

Juan Carlos came to the throne in 1975, upon the death of facist dictator Francisco Franco, making Sofia the Queen of Spain. 

Juan Carlos is judged to have been instrumental in Spain’s peaceful transition to democracy and, with his wife Queen Sofia, then enjoyed years of admiration.

The couple had a close relationship with Queen Elizabeth and the British Royal Family – Prince Charles, Princess Diana and their two sons Princes William and Harry would often spend holidays at the summer palace in Majorca.

Besides accompanying her husband on official visits and occasions, Sofía also undertook solo engagements. 

She is executive president of the Queen Sofía Foundation, and is honorary president of the Royal Board on Education and Care of Handicapped Persons of Spain, as well as the Spanish Foundation for Aid for Drug Addicts. 

As Queen, Sofia never publicly commented on political issues. 

Queen Elizabeth pictured embracing her long-time friend Queen Sofia in Madrid in 1988

Prince Juan Carlos pictured with his wife Sofia of Greece and Denmark circa 1960 in Spain

However, in October 2008, Pilar Urbano’s book ‘The Queen up close’ sparked strong controversy as it contained alleged statements in which, for example, Sofia criticised Spain’s involvement in the military intervention in Afghanistan.

It is also claimed she was against same-sex marriage, abortion and euthanasia.

The claims were denied by the Royal Household, but the episode led to heavy criticism all the same 

When her only son Felipe,  then known as Prince of Asturias, announced his engagement to Letizia Ortiz in November 2003, Sofia took the former journalist and news presenter under her wing.

Letizia paid tribute to her future mother-in-law during her first speech since becoming engaged.

She said: ‘From now on, and more and more, I am going to integrate fully in this new life with the responsibilities that come with it… and with the support and affection of the King and Queen and the priceless example of the queen.’

In June 2014, Juan Carlos abdicated in favour of his son and Felipe and Letizia became King and Queen of Spain. For all his early popularity, Juan Carlos has been serially unfaithful and has been accused of multiple charges of corruption. 

That said, three investigations against the former King were dropped last year and he has denied any wrong doing.

His decision to give up the throne came after a corruption investigation involving his daughter’s husband and a controversial elephant hunting trip the monarch took during Spain’s financial crisis.

Spain’s former King Juan Carlos, Queen Sofia with Queen Letizia and Spain’s King Felipe VI at the Royal Palace in Madrid in January2013

Juan Carlos and his wife Sofia salute the crowd from the balcony of the Oriental Palace in Madrid after the wedding of Prince Felipe of Spain and Letizia Ortiz in May 2004

Queen Letizia of Spain and Queen Sofia at the Marivent Palace in Palma de Mallorca in August

Former King Juan Carlos remains married to Queen Sofia , though it is widely understood they have not shared a bed since the late 1970s.

Following her husband’s abdication, Sofia focused on her sponsoring activities, spending her time between La Zarzuela and, in the summer months, the Marivent Palace in Palma de Mallorca. 

An incident at Easter Mass in 2018 suggested there was conflict within the Spanish Royal Family.

In April of that year, was spotted Letizia apparently preventing her mother-in-law from allowing media to photograph Princesses Leonor and Sofia, standing in front of the former Queen.

The exact reason for their tense interaction is unknown. But the arrival of Felipe and Letizia’s daughters, Leonor and Sofia, seems to have marked a turning point in the  relationship between the two women.

El País claimed that: ‘The arrival of the girls strengthened Letizia, who was by then more familiar with the way the palace worked and was ready to mark her territory’.

Letizia with husband King Felipe, daughters Princess Sofia (front left) and Leonor (front right) and in-laws King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia during the traditional Easter Sunday Mass of Resurrection in Palma de Mallorca in April 2018

Queen Letizia of Spain and Queen Sofia pictured as they host a dinner for authorities at the Almudaina Palace in August 2018 in Palma de Mallorca, Spain

Former Queen Sofia with Queen Letizia and her daughter Princess during the second stage of the 26th Copa del Rey regatta off the coast of Palma de Mallorca, Spain, in July 2007

Sofia, who had enjoyed being a hands-on grandmother, had felt increasingly cut out of her granddaughters’ lives after Letizia’s mother, Paloma Rocasolano, became a regular presence in the palace, according to El Pais.

‘Sofía was accustomed to visiting the girls every so often until it was made clear that she was not welcome, given that her presence interrupted the routine of the young girls.’

That said, Sofia has regularly accompanied her son and his family to events in recent years, including the funeral earlier this year of Sofia’s brother, the former King Constantine II of Greece.

She has spent time in London, where her brother lived, and has frequently been spotted attending mass at the Roman Catholic Westminster Cathedral.

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