El Cid

El Cid with Alfonso VI
El Cid with Alfonso VI

The title El Cid was given to a Spanish early medieval warrior called Rodrigo (or Ruy) Díaz de Vivar, also known as El Campeador (“the Champion”). After his death, he became a folk hero with many Spanish ballads written of his rise from obscurity to lead the Castilians against the Moors.

He was born at Vivar, near Burgos, in the kingdom of Castile; his father a minor Castilian nobleman, but his mother was well connected and ensured that from a young age he attended the court of King Ferdinand I as a member of the household of king’s eldest son, Sancho.

When Sancho succeeded his father as King Sancho II of Castile, he appointed the 22-year-old Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar as his standard bearer as he had already achieved a reputation for valor in battle, taking part in the Battle of Graus in 1063. When Sancho attacked Sargasso in 1067, Rodrigo accompanied him and took part in the negotiations that led the ruler of Sargasso, al-Muqtadir, to acknowledge the overlordship of Sancho.

In 1067 Sancho went to war with his brother Alfonso VI, who had been left the kingdom of León. Some ballads portray El Cid as unwilling to support this invasion, which went against the will of Ferdinand I, but he was likely a willing participant. During the following five years El Cid was a vital military leader on behalf of Sancho. Sancho was killed when laying siege to Zamora. Alfonso, deposed from León, was the heir, and the new king found himself in a difficult political position.

Count García Ordóñez, a bitter enemy of El Cid, became the new standard bearer, but El Cid was able to remain at court, as Alfonso did not want such a tough opponent. It was probably Alfonso who planned the marriage of El Cid to Jimena, daughter of the count of Oviedo. They had a son, Diego Rodriguez, and two daughters. In 1097 Diego was killed in battle in North Africa.

Castilians who had supported Sancho were naturally nervous about Alfonso’s becoming king, and these simmering resentments began to be expressed through El Cid, who served as a conduit for them. In 1079 El Cid was sent to Seville on a mission to the Moorish king.

Coinciding with this trip, García Ordóñez aided Granada in their attack on Seville, but El Cid defeated the forces from Granada at Cabra, capturing García Ordóñez. His easy victory gained him enemies at court. When El Cid attacked the Moors in Toledo (who were allied to Alfonso), the king exiled him, and although he returned some years later, he was never able to remain for long.

El Cid went to work for the Moorish king of Sargasso, serving him and his successor for several years. This gave him a better understanding of Muslim law, which would help him in his later career. In 1082 he led the forces of Sargasso to victory over the Moorish king of Lérida and the count of Barcelona; two years later, undefeated in battle, he defeated the forces of the king of Aragon, Sancho Ramirez. When the Almoravids from Morocco invaded Spain in 1086 and defeated Alfonso’s army, the two were briefly reconciled but soon afterward El Cid returned to Sargasso and did not help prevent the Christians from being overwhelmed.

Instead El Cid focused his attention on becoming the ruler of Valencia. This required political machinations and El Cid had to reduce the influence of other neighboring rulers. The importance of the counts of Barcelona came to an end when Ramon Berenguer II’s forces were decisively defeated at Tebar in May 1090 by El Cid’s Christian and Moorish forces.

El Cid then utilized loopholes in Muslim law when Ibn Jahhaf killed al-Qadir, the ruler of Valencia. He besieged the city, which was controlled by Ibn Jahhaf, and when an Almoravid attempt to lift the siege in December 1093 failed, the city realized it could not hold out for much longer, and in May 1094 it surrendered.

El Cid then proclaimed himself the ruler of Valencia, serving as the chief magistrate and governing for both Christians and Muslims. In law El Cid still owed fealty to Alfonso VI, but in practice he was totally independent of the king. El Cid’s victories encouraged many Christians to move to Valencia and a bishop was appointed. El Cid ruled Valencia until his death on July 10, 1099.

Had El Cid’s only son survived him, there would have been a dynasty, and possibly a new royal house. However that was not the case, and Valencia was ruled by Muslims again until 1238. As he had never been defeated in battle, the story of El Cid, with increasing literary license, became a great ballad for Christians, who overlooked his years working for Moors and hailed him as the hero for the “Reconquista”—the retaking of Spain from the Moors.