King of Spain elephant photo

King Juan Carlos speaks during his first official address as King during a ceremony where he was crowned and proclaimed King of Spain (AP)

However, behind the scenes, Juan Carlos was secretly in contact with liberals, exiles and other regime opponents, meetings that grew in regularity as Franco's health deteriorated. Following Franco's death in November 1975, it was the turn of the general's hardline allies to be dismayed, as the new king began a careful dismantling of the autocratic state that they had assumed would sustain them in power. While a former leader of Franco's Movimiento Nacional was installed as prime minister, a constitutional monarchy was established, Leftist parties legalised, and socialist leaders invited into the royal palace. In June 1977 – less than two years after Franco's death – Spain held its first post-war democratic elections.

From that point onwards, Juan Carlos, a blood relative of Britain's Queen Victoria and France's Louis XIV, might have hoped to revert to the kind of duties more familiar to his counterparts in Britain and Europe, mixing royal engagements with his passions for skiing, hunting and yachting.

King Juan Carlos at the 26th Copa Del Rey Yachting Regatta, Palma de Mallorca, Spain (Rex)

But in early 1981, he was thrust back into the centre of political life when a group of disgruntled army officers attempted to seize power. Unhappy at the role Spain's new parliament had been given in the running of the country, they assumed that Juan Carlos would actually back them. They were wrong.

Drawing on contacts that he had cultivated during his own armed forces training in the 1950s, Juan Carlos telephoned key officers to voice his opposition to the coup, and refused to take calls from those hoping to change his mind. Dressed in his uniform as Captain-General of the Spanish armed forces, he then gave a television broadcast calling for democratic government to be upheld, effectively scuppering the coup.

King Juan Carlos of Spain sends out a televised message to condemn the coup attempt against him in Madrid, Spain (Getty)

It was a move that won him the support even of Spain's communist leader, Santiago Carrillo, the man who had dubbed him Carlos the Brief. As Mr Carrillo put it: "Today, we are all monarchists."

The next quarter-century helped seal the King's popularity, with few of the gaffes and rows that dogged his counterparts in Britain. Frugal by royal standards, he shunned the opulent Palacio Real, remaining in the more modest Zarzuela Palace outside Madrid and trimming budgets for royal courtiers. He also cultivated a certain everyman appeal, broadcasting as a radio ham and riding incognito around Spain on his motorbike.

The then, Prince Juan Carlos as Prince with his wife Princess Sofia riding his motorbike in the grounds of Zarzuela Palace, Madrid, Spain (Reginald Davis/ Rex)

That latter pastime sparked many stories – possibly urban legends – of fellow bikers unexpectedly receiving royal assistance when broken down on lonely roads.

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