Charles Powell was born in Madrid (Spain) in 1960, the second son of a British father, Arthur F. Powell OBE (1924-2009) and a Spanish mother, Julia Solares Navarro (b. 1929). His paternal grandfather, Frank J. Powell, was a prominent English judge and unsuccessful Liberal politician who is remembered, among other things, for his classic study of The trial of Jesus Christ (1948). There is a very good collection of photographs of him in the National Portrait Gallery.
Arthur attended King’s College School (Wimbledon) and later studied Russian at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies (University of London), where he developed a keen interest in linguistics, and later published several books (in Italian) on the teaching of English as a foreign language. Like so many other Spanish women brought up in the post-Civil War years, Julia was unable to attend university after completing her schooling, something she always regretted. After marrying in London in 1957, they moved to Italy, and lived in Milan, Naples and Palermo. Charles is particularly fond of one of their best friends, his Italian godfather (no joke intended) Edgardo Tito Saronne, a former professor of Slavic studies at Bologna University.
Charles was educated at Runnymede College, the school founded by his parents in Madrid in 1967, which is widely recognised as one of the best British schools outside the United Kingdom; his older brother, Frank (b. 1958) is currently the headmaster. His younger sister, Paloma (b. 1965) is deputy director (Budget) at the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) based in Geneva (Switzerland).
Charles read History and Modern Languages (First Class honours) at University College, Oxford (1978-81), where he was awarded an Open Exhibition and later an Open Scholarship. While an undergraduate, he was fortunate to have been taught by some of Oxford’s most remarkable dons, including Leslie G. Mitchell (Univ.), Hartmut Pogge von Strandmann (Univ.), Roger Highfield (Merton), Frances Lannon (Lady Margaret Hall), Robert Pring-Mill (St. Catherine’s), Clive Griffin (Trinity) and Eric Southworth (St. Peter’s).
After spending a year at St. Antony’s College, Oxford, he was awarded a Harmsworth Senior Scholarship at Merton College, Oxford, and was later a Lecturer in History at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, where he stood in for Brian Harrison while he was on leave editing the final volume of the History of the University of Oxford (1914-1970). Charles was later made a J. A. Pye Junior Research Fellow at University College, Oxford, and a Junior Research Fellow at St. Antony’s College, where he completed his DPhil thesis on Spain’s transition to democracy under the supervision of Sir Raymond Carr, who was to become a life-long mentor and friend. This formed the backbone of his first book, El piloto del cambio. El Rey, la monarquía y la transición a la democracia (Planeta, Barcelona), which was awarded the Espejo de España prize in 1991, and also of his biography Juan Carlos of Spain. Self-made monarch (Palgrave, 1996). While still at Oxford, he began to publish on the international dimensions of Spain’s transition to democracy, a field he largely pioneered.
In 1988, Charles married Sylvia Fernández-Shaw (whom he had met in 1984) at the church of Santa María del Coro, in San Sebastián, which they both believe to be the most enchanting city in Spain. Sylvia studied Medicine at Madrid’s Universidad Autónoma and was later awarded a DPhil in 1993 by the University of Oxford for a path-breaking thesis on endometriosis, a medical condition that affects roughly 20% of women. She has gone on to become one of Spain’s leading experts in the field of human reproduction, and currently has her own private practice (URH-García del Real) in Madrid. Sylvia and Charles have been blessed with three sons: James (b. 1992), Tom (b. 1994) and Nico (b. 1997).
In 1996 the Powells decided to settle in Spain. Charles first taught at the Ortega y Gasset Institute’s European studies postgraduate programme, and was later appointed deputy director of the Ortega y Gasset Foundation’s Spanish Centre for International Relations (Centro Español de Relaciones Internacionales). It was his interest in the role of the European Community in Spain’s transition to democracy that later led him to delve deeper into the history of European integration, and to research and publish on Spain’s role in the EC/EU.
In the late 1990s, Charles briefly served as an academic adviser and speech writer to the speaker of the Congress of Deputies, which allowed him to observe the parliamentary process (and the Spanish political elite) at very close quarters. (He is particularly proud of having helped to set up the Spanish parliament’s website). In 1999-2000 he took a sabbatical to write España en Democracia, 1975-2000 (Plaza & Janes, 2001), a general history of Spain since Franco’s death which is widely regarded as the standard text on the period, for which he was awarded the Así Fue prize.
In 2002 he joined the recently created Elcano Royal Institute for International and Strategic Studies, working under its first director, Emilio Lamo de Espinosa, as senior analyst for European affairs. In September of that year, he also became Professor of Contemporary Spanish History at CEU San Pablo University (Madrid). In 2005, he was appointed deputy director of Elcano.
During this period, he continued to work on the Spanish transition, and in 2007 he took part in the creation of the Fundación Transición Española, an institution dedicated to the study of this process, of which he is currently vicepresident. He also became increasingly interested in US foreign policy during the Cold War, spending a great deal of his free time in several US presidential archives doing research on Spanish-US relations in the years 1969-89. This later led to the publication of El amigo americano. España y Estados Unidos, de la dictadura a la democracia (Galaxia Gutenberg, 2011).
In 2012 Charles was appointed director of the Elcano Royal Institute, which has gradually established itself as Spain’s leading international relations think tank under the leadership of one of its founders, Emilio Lamo de Espinosa.
In 2015, the president of Italy made him an ‘ufficiale’ of the Ordine della Stella d’Italia for his contribution to Italian – Spanish relations. One of his favourite places in the world is the medieval Tuscan city of Siena, where he spent several memorable summers in the late 1970s, not least because of the appeal of the Palio, the oldest horse race in the world, which is held on 2 July and 16 August every year.
In 2015, Charles took part in the creation of the Red para el Estudio de las Monarquías Contemporáneas (REMCO), an international academic network which aims to improve our knowledge and understanding of the monarchy in the contemporary world. He is also a member of the council of the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), and a board member of the Fundación Consejo España-Estados Unidos.
Charles greatly enjoys teaching students of different nationalities and academic backgrounds, something he has been doing all his life. Most recently, in December 2016 he was a visiting lecturer at the Universidade Católica Portuguesa (Lisbon), and in June 2017 he held the Ortega y Gasset visiting professorship at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
In June 2017, Charles was appointed a Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George in recognition of his services to British – Spanish relations, and his investiture took place at Buckingham Palace in December of that year. His father, who had received the Order of the British Empire from HM the Queen in 1994 for services to British education in Spain, would probably have been very pleased.
In 2019, Charles was awarded the medal of the Spanish Cortes Generales (Parliament), for his services to the Spanish Constitution of 1978.
In the course of his academic career, Charles has supervised eight doctoral theses, and examined more than twenty. He has also been fortunate to teach, lecture or take part in seminars held in more than forty countries in Europe, the Americas, Africa and Asia. He is an enthusiastic tweeter, and can be followed here: @CharlesTPowell