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.
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.
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....
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