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Anna Hyatt Huntington's El Cid statue at Audubon Terrace in front of the Hispanic Society Library in New York City. Source: Brocken Inaglory / CC BY-SA 3.0

El Cid: Christian Champion or Mercenary for the Moors?

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Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar, more commonly known as El Cid, was an 11 th century Spanish knight, military leader and mercenary. This larger-than-life-figure is celebrated as a champion of Christianity during the  Spanish Reconquista . While its often hard to separate fact from fiction, the reality of his life was rather more complex. After being exiled from Alfonso VI’s court, he went on to offer his military skills to the highest bidder, serving both  Christian and Muslim rulers throughout his lifetime.

A young Rodrigo Díaz showing his father, Diego Laínez, the severed head of Count Lozano, father of his future wife Doña Jimena, in a painting by Juan Vicens Cots. ( Public domain )

What’s in a Name? On Becoming  El Cid Campeador

The name  El Cid  is in fact a title, and one that was probably given to Rodrigo by the Arabs. It has been speculated that the title has its origins in the Arabic  al-Sayyid, meaning “the Lord.” The Castilians, on the other hand, referred to him as  El Campeador , meaning “the champion.” Sometimes the two titles are combined to form  El Cid Campeador

Born around 1040 in Vivar, a small village in the north of Spain not far from the city of Burgos, El Cid’s real name was Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar. According to the historical records, El Cid’s father was Diego Laínez, a minor noble of the Kingdom of Castile. Laínez is known to have been a courtier, a bureaucrat, and to have fought in several battles as a cavalryman. Curiously, the name of El Cid’s mother is lost to history. It is known, however, that she was from an aristocratic family. Additionally, she is recorded to have been a niece of Nuño Alvarez de Carazo, a Castilian diplomat, and his wife, Doña Godo.

Although El Cid’s family served as court officials, it seems that they were only minor functionaries. This is seen, for instance, in the fact that his father only confirmed one document, his maternal grandfather two, and his paternal grandfather only five. As members of the nobility, however, El Cid’s family enjoyed certain privileges. For instance, El Cid received his early education at the Castilian court, where he was in the service of Sancho II, the son of Ferdinand the Great, and the future King of Castile. El Cid learned to read and write, and received training in the use of arms, horsemanship, and the art of the chase.

The famous Santa Gadea Oath, where Alfonso VI (seen here with a red cape) swore on the Bible that he was not involved in the assassination of his brother Sancho II, with El Cid standing as witness. ( Public domain )

After Ferdinand’s Death? Division between brothers. Sibling Rivalry.

Ferdinand’s death in 1065 caused the division of his kingdom, as it was divided between his three sons. Sancho, as the eldest son, received the Kingdom of Castile while his two brothers, Alfonso (who later became Alfonso VI) and García, received Léon and Galicia respectively. Sancho, however, believed that his father’s kingdom should not have been divided, and that as the eldest son he should have inherited the entire kingdom. 

Consequently, the three brothers waged war against each other, and El Cid, as a vassal of Sancho, supported and fought for him. Some are of the opinion that it was during this time that El Cid received his first military appointment, as standard-bearer, a position that gave him command over the Castilian troops.

By early 1072, Sancho had defeated both his brothers, who fled to the courts of the Muslims for refuge. Sancho did not live long to savor his victories however, as he was assassinated in October 1072, when he was besieging the city of Zamora, which was held by Urraca, his sister. There has been lots of speculation regarding Sancho’s untimely death. 

The most widely held view is that Sancho’s murder was orchestrated by Alfonso and Urraca. Some have even gone so far as to suggest that Alfonso and Urraca were in an incestuous relationship. In any case, the person who benefitted most from Sancho’s death was Alfonso, who inherited the kingdom, since Sancho died childless.

According to one legend, the Castilian nobility, led by El Cid and a dozen oath-helpers, forced Alfonso to swear publicly in front of Saint Gadea’s Church in Burgos on holy relics multiple times that he was not involved in Sancho’s assassination. Although this incident is recorded in the literary sources of El Cid’s life, it is likely to have been a fictional event, since it is not mentioned in contemporary historical documents related to the lives of both Alfonso and El Cid. Nevertheless, the story is widely believed, and serves to illustrate El Cid’s courage.

Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar (El Cid) married Jimena Díaz in 1074. ( Public domain )

El Cid and His Marriage to Doña Jimena Díaz

The succession of Sancho by Alfonso did not bode well for El Cid, as the knight was relieved of his position of standard bearer. Yet, Alfonso was probably aware of El Cid’s capabilities as a military leader, and sought to improve their relationship. In 1074, El Cid was married to Jimena Díaz, the daughter of the Count of Oviedo, and a relative of Alfonso himself. The marriage may have been Alfonso’s idea, and was probably aimed at mending his relationship with El Cid. 

Once again, we find the entanglement of fact and fiction. An alternate version of events, based on a 14 th century romance, claims that El Cid had killed Jimena’s father in battle, after which she went to Ferdinand’s court to seek redress. This was denied by the king, so Jimena requested El Cid’s hand in marriage instead, which was granted by the king. This fanciful story is unlikely to be true, since Ferdinand had died in 1065, nine years before the marriage took place.

El Cid and Jimena are recorded to have had three children – Cristina, Maria, and Diego Rodríguez. Both of El Cid’s daughters married into the families of high nobility. As a result of these marriages, El Cid’s social status increased even further. His son, on the other hand, is recorded to have been killed at the Battle of Consuegra in 1097, whilst fighting against the Muslim Almoravids who were invading from North Africa. 

In the fictionalized epic poem El Cantar de mio Cid, the king arranged for El Cid’s daughters to marry the princes of Carrión, but they beat them and left them for dead. The king forces the princes to return the dowry and El Cid’s daughters are married to the crown princes of Navarre and Aragon. ( Public domain )

Exile from Alfonso’s Court and Becoming a Mercenary

Interestingly, although El Cid is best remembered as a warrior and military leader, he had also served Alfonso as an administrator. He was a judge, and kept a personal archive which contained copies of the letters he mailed, and important diplomas he signed whilst serving in Alfonso’s administration. The cordial relations between El Cid and Alfonso, however, did not last. In 1079, El Cid participated in the Battle of Cabra, which was fought between Granada and Seville, two Muslim states. Although El Cid gained victory for his side, his unauthorized expedition did not sit well at all with Alfonso, thereby leading to his exile.

Although this is the most commonly accepted reason for El Cid’s exile, there may have been other factors as well. For instance, El Cid’s ascent at Alfonso’s court may have roused the jealousy of other nobles, who then persuaded Alfonso to exile El Cid. It is also plausible that Alfonso still bore a grudge against El Cid, since he had been, after all, a supporter of his brother, Sancho. It has also been claimed that El Cid was accused of pocketing some of the tribute form Seville, and that he had a tendency to insult powerful men.

As a consequence of his exile, El Cid became a  mercenary, and was willing to serve both  Christian and Muslim rulers, so long as they paid him. In 1081, for example, El Cid came into the service of Yusuf al-Mutamin, who ruled over the Taifa of Zaragoza, one of the Muslim principalities. Prior to that, he had offered his services to Ramón Berenguer II and Berenguer Ramón II, the twin rulers of Barcelona. When his services were refused by the counts, El Cid went to  Zaragoza, and found employment with al-Mutamin. 

Incidentally, in 1067, El Cid, whilst still in the service of Sancho, besieged Zaragoza, which was ruled by al-Mutamin’s father and predecessor, al-Muqtadir. The ruler of Zaragoza was defeated, and became a vassal of Sancho. In any case, El Cid served his new master well, as he successfully defended Zaragoza against the attacks of al-Mutamdhir, Sancho I of Aragón, and Ramón Berenguer II. 

The conquest of Toledo by Alfonso VI in May 1085 as depicted at a ceramic bench in the Plaza de España of Seville. (CarlosVdeHabsburgo /  CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Return to Alfonso’s Court. But Why?

Surprisingly, by 1087 El Cid was in Alfonso’s court once more. The previous year the Almoravids had invaded Spain in response to a desperate plea for help from the Muslim ruler of Seville. Whilst El Cid was serving as a mercenary in Zaragoza, Alfonso was busy strengthening his kingdom. Alfonso had grown so strong that he was able to extract heavy tribute from the various Muslim taifas, in exchange for protection against their other enemies. 

Alfonso’s long-term plan was to weaken these Muslim states by draining their wealth, so that they would eventually surrender their independence to the Castilians without a fight. The tributes demanded by Alfonso caused the Muslim rulers of Spain to tax their subjects heavily, which in turn caused popular discontent amongst the common people. This instability had dire consequences for the taifas, as evident in the surrender of Toledo to Alfonso in May 1085.

In his desperation al-Mu’tamid, the ruler of Seville, sought help from Yusef I, the Almoravid ruler. On the 23 rd of October 1086, the Almoravids and their  Moorish allies defeated Alfonso at the Battle of Sagrajas (or Zallaqa in Arabic). The Christians were so decisively defeated that Alfonso was able to escape with only 500 knights. This defeat terrified Alfonso so much that he summoned El Cid back to his court. 

The events following El Cid’s return to Alfonso’s court are unclear. It is known, however, that he did not remain at Alfonso’s court for long, as he went back to Zaragoza shortly after his return to Castile. Moreover, El Cid did not help Alfonso in his war against the Almoravids, even when it looked as though the latter were on the verge of conquering the whole of Christian Spain. Most importantly, El Cid had plans of his own – to conquer Valencia for himself.

After his conquest of Valencia in 1094, El Cid ordered the execution of Ibn Jahhaf and Almoravid allies.  ( Erica Guilane-Nachez  / Adobe Stock)

El Cid’s Conquest of Valencia from Almoravid Rule

At that time, Valencia was under Muslim rule. In fact, the city had been in Muslim hands since the 8 th century AD. Nevertheless, during the late 11 th century, the  taifa was under the influence of the counts of Barcelona and this was the first obstacle to El Cid’s plan to make himself master of Valencia. In May 1090, El Cid defeated and captured Ramón Berenguer II at the Battle of Tébar. Later on, Ramón Berenguer II’s son, Ramón Berenguer III, married El Cid’s daughter, Maria. These actions weakened the influence of Barcelona on Valencia, and prevented future conflicts between El Cid and Barcelona.

With the Count of Barcelona out of the way, El Cid could tighten his grip on Valencia. In 1092, Ibn Jahhaf, the chief judge of Valencia, rebelled against his master al-Qadir and killed him. Ibn Jahhaf had the support of the  Almoravids. El Cid seized the opportunity to besiege Valencia. The city held out until May 1094 before Ibn Jahhaf surrendered to El Cid. In order to persuade the former chief judge to surrender, El Cid made a pact with him, making him believe that he would not be punished for his rebellion and murder of al-Qadir. When Ibn Jahhaf surrendered, however, he was arrested, and ordered to be burned alive.

El Cid  was now the ruler of Valencia, and he ruled the city until his death in 1099. Although he was nominally holding Valencia for Alfonso, El Cid was in fact an independent ruler in all but name. The Almoravids tried to remove El Cid from Valencia in 1094 and 1097, but failed on both occasions. According to one legend, the Almoravids decided to attack Valencia again when the heard that El Cid had died. Jimena, who had succeeded her husband, had El Cid’s body strapped onto his horse, and ridden into battle. When the enemy saw that El Cid was actually still “alive,” they were filled with terror and left the battlefield. Three years after El Cid’s death, however, Valencia was recaptured by the Muslims.

El Cid was originally buried in the Monastery of San Pedro de Cardeña in Castile. Later on, however, he was re-interred in the Cathedral of  Burgos, where he still lies today. El Cid is arguably one of Spain’s most famous figures, and his life and legend has been adapted in various media, including literary works, poems, epics, play, and in more recent times, films, animations, and video games.

Top image: Anna Hyatt Huntington's El Cid statue at Audubon Terrace in front of the Hispanic Society Library in New York City. Source: Brocken Inaglory /  CC BY-SA 3.0

By Wu Mingren

References

Frutos, A. M. 2021. “Biography of El Cid: Life and Facts” in  Camino del Cid . Available at:  https://en.caminodelcid.org/cid-history-legend/cid-history/

Gilliam, R. R. 2021. “The Genius of El Cid” in  HistoryNet. Available at:  https://www.historynet.com/the-genius-of-el-cid.htm

No name. No date. “El Cid” in  New World Encyclopedia . Available at:  https://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/El_Cid

Oord, C. 2019. “El Cid: The Iconic Warrior who Inspired a 1960s Hollywood Movie” in  War History Online . Available at:  https://www.warhistoryonline.com/history/rodrigo-diaz-de-vivar-el-cid.html

Russell, P. E., 2020. “El Cid” in  Britannica. Available at:  https://www.britannica.com/biography/El-Cid-Castilian-military-leader

Sáez, E., 2021. “Alfonso VI” in  Britannica. Available at:  https://www.britannica.com/biography/Alfonso-VI

Snell, M., 2019. “Biography of El Cid, Medieval Spanish Hero” in  ThoughtCo. Available at:  https://www.thoughtco.com/profile-of-el-cid-1788694

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1998. “Sancho II” in  Britannica. Available at:  https://www.britannica.com/biography/Sancho-II-king-of-Castile

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