El Cid

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2287

Article abstract: El Cid, through military skill and leadership, halted the Almoravide advance on the peninsula, and by exemplifying his times’ ideals of courage, loyalty, and force of will became the national hero of his people.

Early Life

Rodrigo (Ruy) Díaz was born in Vivar, a small village to the north of Burgos in old Castile. Although not of the higher nobility, his family had long held a respected position in the history of the province and at the Castilian-Leonese court. Rodrigo himself was educated in the household of Prince Sancho, heir to the throne. In spite of the many legends and ballads dealing with his early life, little can be proven historically.

Eleventh century Spain was a swirling of shifting frontiers, an armed camp, divided into numerous Moorish and Christian kingdoms whose allegiances were constantly changing. Castile, because of its pivotal geographical position, had long been in a state of warfare. Its final independence from Navarre had been achieved only five years before Rodrigo’s birth, but its King Ferdinand I quickly proceeded to unite all northwestern Spain under his rule. He then turned his attention to the Muslim principalities, the taifas, conquering several and subjecting many others to the payment of tribute.

Rodrigo, in such an atmosphere, quickly rose to prominence by his military prowess and strategic skills. His first military action was probably at Graus, where in 1063 the Castilians with Moorish help defeated the Aragonese. After this, Rodrigo’s life seems to have been one long continuous battle. At the death of Ferdinand in 1065 and Sancho’s accession to the throne, Rodrigo became commander in chief of the Castilian forces. Single combat was still the principal method of settling border disputes between rival states, and the obligation to defend Castile’s honor was Rodrigo’s. His victories in these duels and in battle made him famous throughout Christian Spain, earning for him the title “Campeador” (great warrior).

In 1072, however, Rodrigo’s friend and patron Sancho was assassinated before the walls of Zamora, the last act in the bloody civil wars which had erupted immediately after the death of Ferdinand. Ignoring the lessons of his own struggle for power, Ferdinand had divided his kingdom among his five children, Sancho receiving Castile, Alfonso receiving León, García receiving Galicia, and Urraca and Elvira inheriting the livings of various monasteries. After a brief alliance with Alfonso in order to depose García, Sancho turned upon the others. Legend states that it was at the incitement of Urraca, perhaps abetted by Alfonso, that Vellído Dolfos traitorously stabbed and killed Sancho at the siege of Zamora, Urraca’s last stronghold. Rodrigo de Vivar had grown up with the royal family, and, in spite of his position as the military leader of Sancho’s forces, he had tried to mediate between the warring parties. At Sancho’s death, however, Rodrigo became the spokesman for the Castilian cause. Without a viable candidate for the throne, the Castilian nobles agreed to accept Alfonso as king if he would swear under oath three times in public assembly that he had played no part in his brother’s death. This famous oath was administered by Rodrigo in the Church of Santa Gadea in Burgos. Satisfied (at least officially) of Alfonso’s innocence, Rodrigo, as a loyal vassal, kissed Alfonso’s ring after the oath. His king, in return, angered at this insult to his dignity and jealous of Rodrigo’s reputation as the outstanding Christian military figure, stripped Rodrigo of all the offices and honors he had enjoyed under the patronage of Ferdinand and Sancho. In fact, the Castilian was never again to hold a central place at the court, which was now dominated by the powerful Leonese Vani-Gómez family, the counts of Carrión, whose hostility toward the “Castilian upstart” was to become famous in history and legend. During these years of obscurity, after Sancho’s death, the only favor granted to Rodrigo was his arranged marriage in 1074 to Jimena Díaz, cousin to the king, daughter of the Count of Oviedo and granddaughter of Alfonso V of León.

Life’s Work

Paradoxically, the essence of Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar’s greatness lies not in the concrete details or consequences of what he did, but the manner in which he achieved it, in the journey he took to become El Cid. It is a journey which started at the lowest ebb of his fortunes. In 1079, sent to collect the tribute due from the Moorish king of Seville, al-Muʿtamid, his forces were attacked by those of Granada assisted by García Ordóñez, the favorite of King Alfonso. Ordóñez was defeated and taken prisoner. After his release, humiliated, he spread the rumor that Rodrigo had kept part of the Sevillian tribute for himself. Gladly taking advantage of this and other pretexts, the king gave Rodrigo nine days to leave the kingdom. Shorn of all his property and rents, accompanied by vassals, relatives, and servants, but without his wife and young children, Rodrigo embarked on a life of exile. This bitter abandonment by his king is vividly portrayed in the opening of the famous epic poem Cantar de mio Cid (c. 1140; also known as Poema de mio Cid; The Poem of the Cid). Forbidden to give him aid, the citizens of Burgos hid behind closed doors and shuttered windows as their hero departed, never to return.

His efforts to obtain the patronage of Christian princes proving unsuccessful, Rodrigo became the commander of the Moorish army at Saragossa. There was nothing unusual in this. Although supposedly sworn religious enemies, Christians and Moors often formed alliances according to the political necessities of the moment. Saragossa at that time was one of the most brilliant courts on the peninsula, for its leaders, al-Muqtadir and (later) al-Muʿtamin, had surrounded themselves with Jewish and Arabic scholars. They were happy to accept not only the Castilian’s military services but also his renowned skill as a diplomat and legal expert. It was perhaps in Saragossa, where he remained from 1082 to 1089, that Rodrigo acquired the title “Mio Cid” or “El Cid,” which comes from the Arabic sayyid (lord) and was a common title of respect throughout the Muslim world. During his own lifetime, however, the title came to be specific to Rodrigo, superseding his given name.

Although El Cid led his forces against many Christian armies and had ample reason to defy Alfonso, he never abandoned his loyalty to the man he considered to be his sovereign lord, and he refused to do anything detrimental to Castile’s interests. In fact, El Cid’s only son, Diego, was to die tragically at Consuegra in 1097, fighting at Alfonso’s side in the terrible defeat. Relations between Alfonso and El Cid were always uneasy, but, faced with the greatest threat to the peninsula since the first Moorish invasion in 711, El Cid and the king met in Toledo in December, 1086, or January, 1087, to discuss the growing Almoravid problem. Headed by Yusuf ibn Tashufin and centered in Morocco, the Almoravids were religious zealots who by 1086 ruled a vast empire. The established taifas of Moorish Spain considered the Almoravids little better than barbarians. Alfonso, needing a buffer between his kingdom and the fanatical newcomers, pardoned El Cid and granted him possession of all the lands which he might gain by force of arms in the Levant.

The great prize was Valencia, the rich Moorish city coveted by everyone. Al-Qadir, its weak leader, was under Alfonso’s protection. Therefore, when threatened by an internal revolt, he appealed to El Cid and his ally al-Mustaʿin for aid. Once in command of Valencia, however, al-Mustaʿin himself decided to claim the city, and El Cid was forced to fight against his former employer. Meanwhile, threatened Moorish emirs in other cities had persuaded Yusuf to intervene personally. Yusuf complied but soon left in disgust at the infighting between the Moorish factions. He returned in 1090 determined not only to humble the Christians but to scourge the taifas themselves of their decadence and godlessness. The Spanish Moors then realized too late that their only hope lay in cooperation and partnership with the Christian states. One by one the taifas fell; in Valencia, Almoravid rebels, encouraged by the news of the advancing army, murdered al-Qadir and took control of the city. After months of fruitless negotiations, El Cid placed his army between Yusuf’s and the city walls and opened up the irrigation canals to flood the fields. The Almoravids, afraid to fight their formidable opponent under these conditions, retreated. Weakened by twenty months of siege, Valencia finally surrendered, and on June 15, 1094, El Cid took possession of the city. El Cid tried to govern the Moorish inhabitants fairly, but immediately set about the task of converting Valencia into a Christian outpost, even inviting the Cluniac bishop Jerome to establish a Catholic see. Installed in his fortified city, El Cid finally felt secure enough to send for his wife and children.

This newfound sense of security was brief: Yusuf attacked again. El Cid, seeing his forces badly outnumbered, decided to take the enemy by surprise. On October 25, 1094, he led his men out of the city in darkness; attacking at dawn, El Cid became the first military leader, Christian or Moor, to defeat the Almoravid army in the field. Though he had achieved a stunning victory, during the last years of his life challenges continued to arise. His most incredible victory may have been the battle at Játiva in 1097. Trapped between towering cliffs and the Moorish army on one side and the sea and the Moorish fleet on another, with part of his army fleeing in panic, El Cid managed to rally the rest by the sheer force of his will and routed the enemy. The coast was awash with the Moorish dead who had drowned trying to reach the safety of their ships.

In 1099, Rodrigo de Vivar died unexpectedly. A French chronicle comments: “His death caused the most profound sorrow in Christendom and great joy among the pagan enemies.” He died in the knowledge that by his own strength and skill he had risen from obscurity to power. Shortly before his death, he had seen his daughters, María and Cristina, married into the royal families of Navarre and Catalonia.

Without El Cid, Valencia could not hold out for long. In 1101, the Almoravids laid siege to the city for seven months. Alfonso, in response to Jimena’s cry for help, lifted the siege, but, realizing that it would be impossible to defend the city, ordered its destruction and abandonment. The Christians returned to Castile, bringing El Cid’s body to be buried in the Monastery of San Pedro de Cardeña. It would take them 130 years to regain Valencia.


El Cid, even during his lifetime, personified the hopes and aspirations of his people. Neither a powerful Moorish army nor an unjust Christian king could stop him in his path to glory. Personifying the ideal of the lone individual who conquers by force of will and persistence, his life became a symbol, the fit subject for an epic poem. Unlike the typical legendary hero, however, he was a man of flesh and blood, and even The Poem of the Cid never treats him as other than that. The poem celebrates the virtues and qualities of a very human man.

El Cid’s life was a harsh one. He had had to earn his bread by luck and the strength of his sword. His faults are well documented. He was ambitious and could be cruel and ruthless, but he was also capable of great loyalty. In concrete military terms, he saved the peninsula from being overrun by the Almoravids and gave the Christian forces time to regroup. He also seems to have been one of the few who, rising above the multitudinous petty dissensions and political divisions, saw Spain, both Muslim and Christian, as a single entity worthy to defend. He used all of his skill as diplomat and legal expert to further that end. This rare concept of national unity and loyalty can be seen in his unwavering allegiance to Alfonso.

The aptest compliment paid to him may be found in the words of an enemy. Ibn Bassam, an Arab chronicler, rejoiced at the news of El Cid’s death and cited examples of his cruelty and ambition, yet added, “Although this man was the scourge of his times, yet he must also be accounted, by virtue of his restless and clear-sighted energy, his manly strength of character, and his heroic courage, one of God’s great miracles.”


Crow, John A. Spain, the Root and the Flower: A History of the Civilization of Spain and the Spanish People. New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1963. An impressionistic history of Spain which contains a discussion of the values underlying El Cid’s elevation to national hero.

MacKay, Angus. Spain in the Middle Ages: From Frontier to Empire, 1000-1500. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1977. Contains good background information on the civil wars that preceded El Cid’s exile.

O’Callaghan, Joseph F. A History of Medieval Spain. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1975. Interesting in its use of contemporary chronicles, not only peninsular, as source material.

Read, Jan. The Moors in Spain and Portugal. London: Faber and Faber, 1974. Told from the Moorish point of view, Read’s history makes use of many Arabic sources and includes a fine chapter on El Cid.

Smith, Colin. Introduction and notes in Poema de mio Cid. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972. Contains perhaps the definitive edition of the epic poem as well as an exhaustive introduction, a bibliography, and historical footnotes.

El Cid

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 648

Article abstract: Military significance: A Castilian warrior, El Cid carved a separate dominion out of Muslim Valencia between 1094 and his death in 1099.

Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar was a Castilian nobleman and war vassal who won early fame fighting for his uncle, King Alfonso VI, against the Muslims. He rose high in service to Ferdinand I, who knighted him in 1060, through his skill as a soldier, diplomat, and courtier. He was especially valuable in his dealings with the taifa kings-—Muslim rulers who paid Christian rulers regular fees (called parias) to keep peace and quiet in their territories.

Díaz de Vivar served as squire to his father, Diego Laínez, until his death during battle in 1058. Díaz de Vivar then became ward of Prince Sancho of Castile, proving himself in battle against the Aragonese. When Ferdinand I died in 1065, Sancho ascended to the throne. Sancho II named Díaz de Vivar, who was around the age of twenty-five, commander of the Castilian army. This title allowed Díaz de Vivar to carry the royal sword, making him the king’s armiger.

Díaz de Vivar continued to win honors for himself during single battles. As the king’s armiger, he also had the task of recruiting and training forces for the king’s service. His military success undoubtedly made him an influential recruiter and a commander whose orders were quickly obeyed. King Sancho had steady work for his army, between the parias battles and keeping his territory of Castile from the hands of his brothers Alfonso (later Alfonso VI, who inherited León from Ferdinand I) and García III (who inherited Galicia from Ferdinand I). Sancho formed an alliance with Alfonso in 1071, driving García into Muslim-held Seville.

Soon Sancho and Alfonso were battling each other. When Sancho was killed at the Siege of Zamora (1072), his brother Alfonso became king. Díaz de Vivar quickly pledged his allegiance to Alfonso. He continued to earn acclaim for himself through parias battles against Muslims for Alfonso VI’s kingdom, which now was larger than Ferdinand I’s empire. When, in 1079, Díaz de Vivar battled against both Muslims and Castilians—holding some Castilian noblemen for ransom—Alfonso banished him along with one hundred soldiers.

Díaz de Vivar’s military talent made him an invaluable mercenary, and he spent his time in exile serving the ruler of Zaragoza. His exploits made him rich as well as famous. During his exile, he defeated and captured the count of Barcelona in 1082 and defeated the king of Aragon and captured a string of distinguished Aragonese prisoners in 1084.

Alfonso recalled him to Castile in 1086, but Díaz de Vivar was again exiled in 1089. His wealth and military expertise allowed him to form a private army. He roamed the eastern region of Spain, known as Levante, sometimes fighting Christians, sometimes fighting Muslims. He pillaged the countryside, sometimes exacting tributes for the protection of the province, and he eventually besieged the Moorish city of Valencia (1093-1094). Establishing his own taifa statelet, he ruled as “prince” of Valencia for the last five years of his life, dying there peacefully in 1099. It was with this dominion that Díaz de Vivar earned the name “El Cid,” meaning “the boss” or “the lord.” During his tenure at Valencia, El Cid is said to have ruled with an iron fist, acquired great wealth, and married his two daughters to high-ranking nobility. A twelfth century poem about this semilegendary Christian hero became Spain’s national epic.

Further Reading:

El Cid. Fiction feature. Best Film & Video, 1961.

Fletcher, Richard. The Quest for El Cid. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Koslow, Philip. El Cid. Hispanics of Achievement series. New York: Chelsea House, 1993.

Nicolle, David. El Cid and the Reconquista 1000-1492. London: Osprey, 1998.

McCaughrean, Geraldine. El Cid. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Matthews, John. Warriors of Christendom. Poole, Dorset: Firebird Books, 1988.

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