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The Spanish royal family found themselves at the centre of global speculation five years ago when Queen Letizia, the wife of the reigning King Felipe VI, appeared to clash with her mother-in-law, Queen Sofia, at Easter Mass. 

King Juan Carlos, Queen Sofia, Princess Sofia, Queen Letizia, Princess Leonor and King Felipe VI at Easter Mass, 2018

Carlos R. Alvarez

In a moment that was captured by news cameras waiting outside the cathedral in Palma, Mallorca, Queen Letizia and Queen Sofia seemed to share terse words about a photo opportunity. Sofia, who is married to the disgraced King Juan Carlos I, moved to take a photo with her granddaughters Princess Leonor, 17, and Princess Sofia, 15. Queen Letizia moved to stand in front of the cameras, blocking the shot. Letizia then removed her mother-in-law’s hand from Sofia’s shoulder. The two women shared a short tense exchange before Felipe appeared to intervene.

The video of the dramatic moment went viral and made headlines around the world. It appeared to bring to light an underlying tension that, according to some sources, had been simmering between the two powerful women for some time.

When Felipe, the then Prince of Asturias and heir to the throne, announced his engagement to Letizia Ortiz, a former broadcast journalist, in November 2003, it seemed Sofia had taken her future daughter-in-law under her wing. Reports from the time said Sofia had ‘adopted’ her son’s fiancée, while Letizia praised her future mother-in-law in a speech, saying: 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.’ 

Queen Sofia and Queen Letizia, 2019

Carlos R. Alvarez

According to El País, the arrival of Felipe and Letizia’s daughters, Princess Leonor Princess Sofia, in 2005 and 2007, respectively, marked a turning point in their relationship. ‘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,’ it is reported. Sofia enjoyed being a hands-on grandmother (the two families lived nearby at the time) but it became clear she and Letizia had different expectations. ‘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.’

The Spanish royal family, October 2022

Samuel de Roman/Getty Images

In June 2014, Juan Carlos abdicated in favour of his son and Felipe and Letizia became King and Queen of Spain. Although the relationship between Letizia and Sofia appeared positive in public, the incident at Easter Mass in 2018 suggested there was conflict within the family. 

Despite this, the Spanish royal family seems to have reconciled. Felipe, Letizia and Sofia regularly appear in public together – including at the recent funeral of Sofia’s brother, the former King Constantine II of Greece. At the service it was her daughter-in-law, Letizia, who held her hand and offered comfort.