Biography

I 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 (1929-2019). My 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. 

My father, 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, later publishing 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, my mother, Julia, was unable to attend university after completing her schooling, something she always greatly regretted. After marrying in London in 1957, they moved to Italy, and lived in Milan, Naples and Palermo. I have always been particularly fond of one of their best friends, my Italian godfather (no joke intended) Edgardo Tito Saronne, a former professor of Slavic studies at Bologna University.

I was educated at Runnymede College, the school founded by my parents in Madrid in 1967, which is widely recognised as one of the best British schools outside the United Kingdom; my older brother, Frank (b. 1958) is currently the headmaster. My younger sister, Paloma (b. 1965) has recently retired after holding the job of deputy director (Budget) at the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) based in Geneva (Switzerland).

While reading History and Modern Languages (First Class honours) at University College, Oxford (1978-81), I was awarded an Open Exhibition and later an Open Scholarship. My undergratuate experience owes a great deal to the fact that I was lucky 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, I moved to Merton College, Oxford, where I had been awarded a Harmsworth Senior Scholarship, and was later a Lecturer in History at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, where I stood in for Brian Harrison while he was on leave editing the final volume of the History of the University of Oxford. I later returned to University College, Oxford, as a J. A. Pye Junior Research Fellow, and was subsequently appointed a Junior Research Fellow at St. Antony’s College, where I completed a DPhil thesis on Spain’s transition to democracy under the supervision of Sir Raymond Carr, who became a life-long mentor and friend. This formed the backbone of my 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 the biography Juan Carlos of Spain. Self-made monarch (Palgrave, 1996). While still at Oxford, I also began to publish on the international dimensions of Spain’s transition to democracy, a topic I have recently revisted.

In 1988, I was very fortunate to marry Sylvia Fernández-Shaw (whom I had met four years earlier) at the church of Santa María del Coro, in San Sebastián, which we believe to be the most enchanting city in Spain. Sylvia studied Medicine at Madrid’s Universidad Autónoma and was later awarded a DPhil by the University of Oxford  in 1993 for a path-breaking thesis on endometriosis, a medical condition that affects roughly 20% of women. She has gone on to become a leading expert in the field of human reproduction, and currently has her own private practice (URH-García del Real) in Madrid. We have been blessed with three sons: James (b. 1992), Tom (b. 1994) and Nico (b. 1997).

In 1996, we decided to settle in Spain. My first academic home in Madrid was the Ortega y Gasset Institute, whose European studies postgraduate programme I helped to set up. Several years later, I was appointed deputy director of the Ortega y Gasset Foundation’s Spanish Centre for International Relations (Centro Español de Relaciones Internacionales), my first experience of a think tank. It was largely my interest in the role of the European Community in Spain’s transition to democracy that later led me 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, I briefly served as an academic adviser and speech writer to the speaker of the Congress of Deputies, which allowed me to observe the parliamentary process (and the Spanish political elite) at very close quarters. (I am particularly proud of having helped to set up the Spanish parliament’s website, which doesn’t seem to have changed much since then!) In 1999-2000 I 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, which was awarded the Así Fue prize (plus a very welcome cheque for €60,000!)

In 2002, I 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, and three years later I became its deputy director. In September of that year, I also became Professor of Contemporary Spanish History at CEU San Pablo University (Madrid), where I have continued to teach ever since.

Despite my other interests, my long-standing obsession with the Spanish transition has never left me, and in 2007 I took part in the creation of the Fundación Transición Española, an institution dedicated to the study of this process, of which I am currently vicepresident. I also became increasingly interested in US foreign policy during the Cold War, spending a great deal of my 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 I 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.

Italy has always meant a great deal to me, and I was therefore delighted to be appointed an ‘ufficiale’ of the Ordine della Stella d’Italia in 2015 for my contribution to Italian – Spanish relations. One of my favourite places in the world is the medieval Tuscan city of Siena, where I spent several memorable summers in the late 1970s, not least because of my obsession with the Palio, the oldest horse race in the world, which is held on 2 July and 16 August every year.

In 2015, my interest in the monarchy led me to take 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. I am 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.

I have always greatly enjoyed teaching students of different nationalities and backgrounds, something I have been doing all my life. Most recently, in December 2016 I was a visiting lecturer at the Universidade Católica Portuguesa (Lisbon), and in June 2017 I held the Ortega y Gasset visiting professorship at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

In June 2017, I was delighted to be appointed a Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George in recognition of my services to British – Spanish relations; the investiture, which took place at Buckingham Palace in December of that year, was a truly memobrable occasion. I was only sorry that my father, who had received the Order of the British Empire from HM the Queen in 1994 for services to British education in Spain, was not there with me.

In 2019, I was also awarded the medal of the Spanish Cortes Generales (Parliament), for my services to the Spanish Constitution of 1978.

Largely thanks to some of the my friends and colleagues at St Antony’s (Oxford), I have always been interested in Central and Eastern Europe, and was therefore very pleased to be awarded the Romanian Order of Merit in June 2020, for my (very modest) contribution to Spanish – Romanian relations.

During the course of my academic career, I have supervised eight doctoral theses, and examined more than twenty. I have also been fortunate to teach, lecture or take part in seminars held in more than forty countries in Europe, the Americas, Africa and Asia. I confess I am an enthusiastic tweeter, and can be followed here: @CharlesTPowell