The saga of the former king, his lover, her $77.2 million, and the dead elephant took a new turn this week. It emerged that Corinna zu Sayn-Wittgenstein, an old lover of the former king Juan Carlos of Spain, accuses him of spying on her in the UK. In a claim in the High Court in London the German-Danish businesswoman says that he put her under surveillance as part of their long-running battle.
The gift of $77.2 million he allegedly gave Sayn-Wittgenstein, 57, in 2012, is a key focus in investigations into Carlos’s finances and is at the heart of the dispute between the former lovers. He abdicated in 2014 in favor of his son, Felipe, and last year left Spain amid corruption allegations and a rise in republican sentiment.
The former king, 83, has been living in a luxury hotel in Abu Dhabi, owned by the emirate’s ruling family. In a letter to his son last year he said that he was leaving Spain in the face of “public repercussions that certain past events in my private life are generating”.
Death by Poaching
Maybe the king’s reign would not have unraveled in the extraordinary way it has if he hadn’t shot dead that elephant in Botswana in 2012. King Juan Carlos, as he still was, invited Sayn-Wittgenstein on the private trip. Their relationship had ended in 2009, but they remained friends.
“I wasn’t keen on going on this trip. I felt that King Juan Carlos was trying to get me to come back to him, and I didn’t want to give a false impression. I almost had premonitions about this trip,” she told the BBC last year.
For her the shooting by the king of an elephant that was reportedly 50 years old and weighed five tons was disturbing. “I saw it afterwards because everybody goes to see it,” she said of the dead animal. “But I walked away after two minutes. I’m a hunter, but I’ve never killed an elephant in my life and never would. For me, the whole hunting experience was traumatic in that sense.”
Two days after the shooting Juan Carlos fell in his tent, fracturing his hip, and had to be flown back to Spain for medical treatment. The media got wind of the safari and there was outrage over the extravagance at a time of severe austerity, the killing of the elephant, and the discovery that the king, whose amorous exploits had hitherto been glossed over by the Spanish media, had had an extramarital affair.
Already the monarchy was under scrutiny as Iñaki Urdangarin, the king’s son-in-law, was under investigation for corruption. That would eventually lead, in 2018, to his jailing for six years for tax fraud and embezzlement. Princess Cristina, his wife, was acquitted of being an accessory to tax fraud and now lives in Switzerland with their children.
The king and Sayn-Wittgenstein had met in 2004 at a shooting party on the Duke of Westminster’s estate in Spain. Born in Denmark and brought up in Germany, she had a daughter from her first marriage to a businessman and a son by her second husband, Casimir, Prince zu Sayn-Wittgenstein-Sayn, a German count.
She was working for a company that organized shoots. The king had, she recalled later, been having trouble with his shotgun and “I’m quite knowledgeable about all that, so I could explain what was wrong”.
After speaking frequently on the phone they had a first date a few months later. “We always laughed a lot. We immediately clicked on many things, and we had many common interests — politics, history, fantastic food, wines.”
She lived in London and would travel with the king or stay with him in a cottage in Madrid. “It was an immediately very strong, deep and meaningful relationship.” She said that he told her he and Queen Sofia had an agreement to represent the crown, “but they led totally different separate lives”. He had previously had a long-running relationship with another woman, she claimed.
She met his children and was known to his friends. He proposed, she said, but while she saw it as evidence of the seriousness of the relationship, she didn’t expect them to marry because of the implications for the monarchy.
However, in 2009, while she was grieving for her father, who had died of cancer, Juan Carlos told her that he had been simultaneously having a relationship with another woman. The romance was over, but they remained friends. She looked after him when he had a tumor on his lung, which turned out to be benign.
She has said that she thought the Botswana trip would have been leaked whatever happened because there were forces in the palace that wanted to engineer the old king’s abdication. The surveillance began after that episode, she said. “This was the beginning of a campaign to paint me as this Wallis Simpson, Lady Macbeth, evil character who’d led this wonderful man astray on this trip during a big economic crisis,” she told the BBC. She listed a number of allegations of what she believed was spying by the intelligence services, including finding a book in the living room of her Swiss apartment about the death of Diana, Princess of Wales.
Swiss authorities are investigating an alleged payment to Juan Carlos of $100 million from the former king of Saudi Arabia. It has been reported that they are probing whether there was a connection to a high-speed rail contract in Saudi Arabia awarded to Spanish companies in 2011. In June 2020 Spain’s Supreme Court also opened a probe into the money.
In 2012, a few months after the Botswana hunting trip, $77.2 million was transferred from Juan Carlos to Sayn-Wittgenstein and she is reportedly also under investigation by the Swiss. Her lawyers have said that the money was a gift and not related to the rail deal.
She has said that she was very surprised by the sum she was given “because it’s obviously an enormously generous gift”, she told the BBC. She said Juan Carlos had mentioned that “he wanted to take care of me, but no amounts were ever discussed”.
“This was the beginning of a campaign to paint me as this Wallis Simpson, Lady Macbeth, evil character who’d led this wonderful man astray on this trip during a big economic crisis.”
In her High Court claim she says, according to the Financial Times, that Juan Carlos later asked her for the money back “or made available for his use” and that when she declined he falsely accused her of stealing the funds and defamed her to her family and business partners and the Saudi ruling family. This resulted in loss of income from the wealthy individuals she consults for, she says, and she is seeking damages.
In 2014 he made “desperate” attempts to get her to come back to him, she told the BBC. “At some point he realised I wasn’t going to return, and he went completely ballistic. He asked for everything back. I think it was just a tantrum he threw.”
She is also seeking a restraining order that would prevent Juan Carlos and those working for him coming within 150m of her home. She alleges that agents followed her, trespassed on her property and hacked her electronic devices. Her main home is Chyknell Hall, an estate in Shropshire she bought in 2015.
Lawyers for the king, who denies he has done anything wrong, are understood to be aiming to have the claim thrown out by arguing that as a former head of state he should not be subject to English court proceedings.
There are a number of other investigations into Juan Carlos concerning the alleged use of credit cards linked to foreign bank accounts not in the names of members of his family and whether he failed to declare money from a Mexican millionaire. Over the past year he has paid millions of dollars of tax for the first time. He has consistently denied allegations of corruption.
His exile and legal woes are all the more remarkable because for years he was held in high esteem in Spain for his role in the first part of his reign. He was born in 1938 in Italy, where his family had fled in 1931 when the monarchy was abolished. He was sent to Spain, aged nine, to be educated after Franco established himself as dictator. Juan Carlos became king in 1975 after Franco’s death and was acclaimed for facing down a coup in 1981. He built a reputation as an effective ambassador for his country.
Now the scandals have forced his son, Felipe VI, to distance himself from his father’s financial controversies. Felipe announced that he was disinheriting himself from his father and stripped him of his stipend.
Felipe has promised to make the royal household more transparent and not accept “gifts that exceed the usual uses, special or courtesy”. His formal, more serious manner is regarded as an asset. Princess Leonor, 15, the elder of his two daughters, and his heir, is a studious girl who can speak four languages including fluent English and is to attend UWC Atlantic College, a boarding school in Wales.
Meanwhile, the former king, who is said to be increasingly frail, languishes at the hotel in Abu Dhabi, with his bodyguards and the occasional visitor. Last year a source close to him told The Times that he was “feeling alone, old and bored”. This year a friend of Juan Carlos said that there was no legal basis for him to have to stay out of Spain. “It is a human right for people who are not in prison to decide where they want to reside.”
However, a return to Spain would require government agreement and it is uncertain what justice he might face. And who knows what all those in the Zarzuela Palace on the outskirts of Madrid think about his desire to return. They include the new king, of course, but also Sofia, who remained in Spain when her errant husband moved overseas.
Damian Whitworth is a features editor for The Times of London