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Spain's King Alfonso 13th: The Last King Before Franco's Rule

You might think that royals have all the luck. Not Alfonso XIII of Spain.

The Spanish Royal Family: King Alfonso XIII, Queen Victoria Eugenie (Ena) and their children.

The Spanish Royal Family: King Alfonso XIII, Queen Victoria Eugenie (Ena) and their children.

Spain's King on a Silver Salver

King Alfonso XIII of Spain became king at his birth on the 17th May 1886. He was presented naked on a silver salver to the Spanish Prime Minister within minutes of his arrival. His father King Alfonso XII had died in late November 1885 from tuberculosis and his pregnant widow Archduchess Maria Cristina of Austria acted as regent while Spain awaited news of their new monarch.

It had been agreed that if Maria Cristina bore a third daughter, her eldest, Infanta Maria Mercedes, Princess of Asturias, would become queen and if her unborn child was male, he would be proclaimed the king. And so it was that Alfonso Leon Fernando Maria Jaime Isidro Pascual Antonio from the royal House of Bourbon came to the throne of Spain. He was baptised with water from the River Jordan at five days old.

Alfonso XIII Learns How to Rule

Maria Cristina retained the position of regent until Alfonso XIII was sixteen years old. There was great fear that Alfonso wouldn’t survive when the Asiatic or Russian Flu took hold of him in early January 1890. His recovery was slow but at least there was one.

Intelligent and humorous, he was conscious of his position in life from an early age and would happily issue orders to his adult staff. The routine of court life bored him. His education focused on the military and political aspects of rule and faith. He was comfortable in a uniform. On his sixteenth birthday, he started his reign in his own right and continued the practice of alternating the conservative and liberal governments which frequently led to unrest.

In 1905 he chose Queen Victoria’s granddaughter Victoria Eugenie of Battenburg (1887-1969), known as Ena, as his bride. It was known by this time that Queen Victoria’s female descendants might carry the hemophilia gene but Alfonso was not dissuaded from the marriage, he felt confident in his and Ena’s good fortune.

Young King Alfonso XIII in cadet uniform.

Young King Alfonso XIII in cadet uniform.

Hemophilia in the Spanish Royal Family

Their wedding on the 31st May 1906 was attended by numerous European royals and dignitaries and was devastated by a brutal terrorist attack which offered a suggestion of what was to follow in restless Spain. Find out more about Alfonso and Ena’s wedding here.

The couple’s first son Alfonso, known as Alfonsito, was born on the 10th May 1907 in Madrid. Within months it became evident that he suffered from hemophilia. His youngest brother Gonzalo also suffered from the disease. The boys wore protective suits to save them from life-threatening injuries, this also inevitably and horribly marked them out as different from their sisters Infantas Beatriz and Maria Cristina and brothers Infante Jaime and Infante Juan. There was also a stillborn son named Fernando.

Alfonso realised the implications of the dreaded haemophilia in the Bourbon bloodline. From his 1905 attitude of not being troubled about Ena possibly carrying the gene, he now shunned her for it. Alfonso took a series of mistresses and had at least six illegitimate children.

Humanitarian Work in WW1

During the First World War King Alfonso took a neutral stance, he had a plethora of relations on both sides of the war. He directed the humanitarian efforts, working to accommodate thousands of prisoners of war and to help them to communicate with relatives. For this, he was lauded.

In 1918 the Spanish Flu (so-called because Spain was neutral, not because it originated there) left Alfonso seriously ill and his condition and recovery were widely reported in the media. Reports of cases in enemy territories were subject to reporting censorship to ensure that no accusations of germ warfare could be made. In effect, he was the poster boy for the "Spanish" flu.

Ena, Queen Victoria Eugenia of Spain.

Ena, Queen Victoria Eugenia of Spain.

King Alfonso Attracts Trouble

Between 1920 and 1926 the Rif War earned Alfonso criticism as he failed to solidify Spanish rule of Morocco and acted against the principles of a constitutional monarch. The Spanish were not happy with a king who increasingly practiced personal rule. As Spain’s troops died in the theatres of battle, Alfonso enjoyed the delights of France and failed to return home to console grieving relatives and mourn with his people.

Alfonso’s army mutinied in 1923 and he took a gamble after a military coup by supporting General Miguel Primo de Rivera. However, many onlookers believed this was to ensure the unpalatable truth about how disastrous the war had been for Spain could be kept away from public scrutiny.

Alongside war defeat and Alfonso’s rising unpopularity, the economy was in a dire state. Reviled rather than revered, Miguel Primo de Rivera fled to Paris in August 1930, he died within weeks of his arrival there. Alfonso had closely aligned his fate with the general's by standing by him.

A Spanish Republic

The army refused to fight in Alfonso’s name. After elections were held for a new leader Alfonso and the royal family were banished into exile on the 14th-15th April 1931. A republic was triumphantly declared in Spain but Alfonso did not officially abdicate. He never saw Spain again. Alfonso and Ena chose to lead separate lives in exile, she made her home in Switzerland and he resided in Rome. Six months into his exile Alfonso was charged with treason by the Cortes, the Spanish parliament.

He was saved from trial when the army and the republic’s rulers entered into a civil war. Alfonso supported the military but Francisco Franco was quick to point out that he had no intention of restoring the monarchy. Alfonso and Ena’s two eldest sons renounced their claims to the now redundant Spanish throne in 1933. The youngest son Juan did not bother to do this and when Franco selected his successor in 1975 it was Juan’s son, Juan Carlos who restored the monarchy. His son is the current ruler, King Felipe VI.

Alfonso XIII Abdicates and Dies

Lady Pamela Hicks, Earl Mountbatten’s second daughter related in her entertaining book Daughters of Empire that when Mountbatten told him the family was relocating to Malta for his naval duties Alfonso, their house guest, assumed that he was going to live in Malta with them. Mountbatten had great difficulty explaining that the relatively small Maltese property and the ex-king's entourage were incompatible.

Alfonso earned the name of “Playboy King” not just because of his extramarital affairs but because he was rumoured to be a keen connoisseur and commissioner of Spanish pornography. Franco apparently destroyed most of the seventy or so movies made by Alfonso's Royal Films.

It was not until the middle of January 1941, after years of passing time as amenably as possible that Alfonso, sensing that he was in failing health, officially abdicated. Alfonso XIII had a fatal heart attack in Rome on the 18th February. He was buried in the Santa Maria in Monserrato degli Spagnoli, the Spanish National Church in the city. In winter 1980 his remains were relocated to the royal crypt in El Escorial, Spain. Ena died in Switzerland on the 15th April 1969, she was interred in the royal crypt in 1985.

Francisco Franco ushered Spain into a new era.

Francisco Franco ushered Spain into a new era.


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Joanne Hayle