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El Cid – Conquistador or Machiavelli?

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

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One of the most celebrated characters in Spanish Medieval history is El Cid. Statues of him portray a powerful warrior on horseback with his sword raised in the air. He is hailed by many Catholic sources as being the first crusader in the Reconquista and fought valiantly for Christianity. A closer look at the facts surrounding El Cid`s history show a profoundly different character. In this article, we explore the real story behind the myth of El Cid.

Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar (1043-1099), aka El Cid Campeador (lord of military arts) was born in a small town north of Burgos, Spain. He was born at an age when the once powerful and rich Muslim empire of Cordoba suddenly imploded and disintegrated into small petty kingdoms, called Taifas. Although politically weak, Taifas were often rich due to their highly skilled labor workforce. This made them attractive pray to more militaristic kingdoms nearby. Christian kingdoms of the north soon learned that they can force Taifa kingdoms to pay large amounts of tribute. Those who refused to pay tribute were punished by ruthless military retribution.

It was in this environment that Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar was born into. He was brought up and raised to be a warrior and taught how to use a sword from a very early age. In 1057 (when he was only 14), he fought his first campaign against the Muslim stronghold of Zaragoza. He won the battle making its ruler, al-Muqtadir a vassal of the Castilian king Sancho II. In 1063, the Castilian rival Christian kingdom of Aragon laid siege to Cinca, a Muslim town of Zaragoza. Al-Muqtadir, a Castilian vassal, was accompanied by an army led by Rodrigo to fight the Argonese. Ferdinand`s half brother, Ramiro I, was killed and his army fled the field.

In 1072, Sancho II was assassinated as a result of a conspiracy between his brother Alfonso VI and his sister Urraca. As a result, Alfonso VI took over his growing empire. Alfonso VI, who was in exile in Toledo, returned immediately to be crowned as king of Castile and Leon. El Cid now entered the service of Alfonso VI. In 1079, a rivalry between El Cid and another Castilian general, Garcia Ordonez, erupted into an all out open conflict at the Battle of Cabra, when El Cid led his troops to victory and soundly defeated the troops of Emir Abdullah of Granada and his ally Garcia Ordonez. However, this military expedition was not authorized by Alfonso VI and greatly angered him. Alfonso VI, who shared several of the noblemen`s suspicions that El Cid was becoming too powerful and difficult to control, used this incident as a reason to exile El Cid.

After his exile, El Cid went looking for another court to serve. After being rejected from Barcelona, he went to Zaragoza where he was given a warm welcome by its Muslim rulers. His service to Zaragoza paid off. He was given a Muslim army consisting of Muladis, Berbers, Arabs and Malians and in return Zaragoza was well protected from nearby Muslim rivals as well as the Castilians and Aragonese. In 1084, El Cid and his new army defeated Sancho I of Aragon at the Battle of Morella near Tortosa.

When the Castilians quickly and quietly overtook Toledo in 1085, it sent shockwaves throughout Iberia. Desperate for protection, the remaining Muslim Taifa kingdoms requested military assistance from the powerful Almoravid Empire in North Africa. Yusuf ibn Tashfin led the Almoravid forces throughout Iberia in 1086 and defeated the combined army of Leon, Aragon and Castile at the Battle of Sagrajas. Confident that their work was done, the Almoravids went back to North Africa.

Terrified by this defeat, Alfonso VI called on two allies to his aid: the Roman Catholic Church and El Cid. Urban II, the pope at the time, was busy organizing and directing the knights and kings of Europe against the Muslims in preparation of the crusades. On one hand, Urban II, hoped that by defeating the Muslims in the Holy Land, the two churches (Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches) could be reunited. On the other hand, he found it as a convenient tool to have direct control over the knights and kings of Europe in order to steer their subjects to the brand of Christianity that he saw fit. For Pope Urban II, it was a win-win scenario.

Urban II pledged to help Alfonso VI financially and militarily, if necessary. Under the direction of Urban II, Alfonso VI was able to finance and rebuild his army following the Battle of Sagrajas. This was done in exchange for allowing Urban II to install bishops, cardinals and priests thoughout Alfonso VI`s land that Urban II deemed as conveyers of the true version of Christianity. This would be a version that did not tolerate the presence of Islam and Judaism in the Iberian peninsula. Indeed, in a matter of a generation, the Christian kingdoms came to identify themselves as Christians, not as Iberians, on a holy mission, or crusade, to rid the Iberian peninsula of infidels. Urban II established Toledo as a home of the Spanish archbishop. The close relationship between the pope and Alfonso VI became more evident when the pope sent a naval fleet to aid Alfonso VI in his effort to curtail El Cid`s siege of Valencia, as will be shown later. The Catholic Church continued to appoint bishops and implanted Catholic feudalism behind every acre of land conquered by future Spanish monarchs. Such a union between Church and State would define the political climate in the Iberian peninsula for centuries to come and lead to the lasting animosity between Muslims and Christians.

The other ally that Alfonso VI called upon was El Cid. Alfonso VI recalled El Cid from exile to lead his forces against Yusuf ibn Tashfin`s forces. El Cid returned to Alfonso VI`s court in 1087, but with his own plans. He brought with him the Muslim army that he led in Zaragoza and combined it with whatever army Alfonso VI gave him. He failed to appear in a battle between Alfonso VI and ibn Tashfin`s forces, resulting in the defeat of Alfonso VI. Using this combined army, El Cid deserted Alfonso VI and headed for the coastal town of Valencia.

Watching the Christian and Muslim armies exhaust each other in battle, he waited for the right moment to strike and take over Valencia. To do so, however, he would first have to subdue the powerful ruler of Barcelona, Berenguer Ramon II. He drew him out to conflict in May 1090, where he defeated him in the Battle of Tebar. He then pursued peace with him and released him to avoid any future conflicts. In 1092, an uprising erupted in Valencia led by its chief judge ibn Jahhaf and supported by the Almoravids. El Cid seized this opportunity and began a siege of the city almost immediately. In attempt to thwart his efforts to carve out his own kingdom, Alfonso VI requested the aid of Italian navy warships (under the orders of Pope Urban II) to open a lifeline to the besieged coastal city. El Cid cut off this route by occupying the land between the harbor and the city walls. After exhausting all their food supplies and facing starvation, the siege ended May 1094, when the city surrendered to El Cid. He initially used ibn Jahhaf`s assistance in controlling the Muslim population of Valencia. Once El Cid was in control of the city, he charged ibn Jahhaf with the crime of murdering his former Muslim prince andn burned ibn Jahhaf alive in public. Furthermore, El Cid imprisoned many rich noblemen and held them for ransom. In the end, El Cid (and his wife) would rule Valencia for another five years. El Cid nominally ruled the city under Alfonso VI, but in reality had independent control of the city.

In 1099, the Almoravid forces reached Valencia and began siege of the city. Before El Cid would defend the city, he died of natural causes that same year at the age of 56. The defense of the city would now lie on El Cid`s wife and Alfonso VI. The siege continued on and off for three more years. Upon realizing the imminent fall of the city, Alfonso VI immediately ordered the entire city to be burned rather than have it captured intact by the Almoravids. Many of its inhabitants were burned alive in the process. El Cid`s wife fled Valencia with her husband`s body, which now lies in the Burgos Cathedral, where a statue was also built in his honor. In 1102, Almoravid forces, under the leadership of the Masdali, were able to once again return Valencia to Muslim control. It remained so for another 136 years (until 1238).

So, how did this seemingly cunning and ruthless leader earn the title of being the first crusader of the Reconquista? The legend started with the 12th century poem by the title of “El Canta de Mio Cid” (The Song of the Cid) that was written about him. The poem was 3700 lines long and became famous since it was considered to be the beginning of Spanish literature. It made references to his chivalry, his devotion to the promise made to the Catholic Church, and so on. Much of the accounts in the poem are romanticized fiction. Furthermore, it completely excludes any mention of El Cid`s service in the Muslim courts of Zaragoza, as this would be viewed as unacceptable for a Christian knight. Later writings so romanticized his conquests that people began to doubt if he really existed.

Another myth that was reported in the poem, but is now generally dispelled by historians, is that Alfonso VI was forced to swear on the Bible as well as many holy relics in the Burgos Cathedral that he had nothing to do with his brother`s death. Another myth is that El Cid converted several of Valencia`s mosques into churches, another statement that cannot be substantiated with any physical evidence. El Cid is often described as a “brave knight” or “chivalrous devout Christian.” Nothing in his biography ever mentions his religiosity. In fact, evidence seems to indicate quite the contrary. During the Battle of Graus in 1063, he led a Muslim army against the Aragonese army (a Christian army) and defeated it. Yet another myth that is that El Cid died in battle by an arrow to his chest defending the city of Valencia. Historical evidence now shows that he really died of natural causes in July 1099.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, there has been a great revival in the interest in Spanish Medieval characters and history. In the early twentieth century, a man by the name of Archer Milton Huntington, founded the Hispanic Society of America in New York. His wife, Anna Huntington, who was an accomplished artist, built a statue of El Cid. Copies of her design were distributed to Seville Spain (1927), Balboa Park in San Diego, California (1930), California Palace Legion of Honor, San Francisco, California (1930), Buenos Aires, Argentina (1935), and finally in Valencia, Spain in the Plaza of Spain in the Avenida del Cid (1960s).

So, is he a Conquistador or just an ambitious and well accomplished ruthless warrior? Historical evidence now indicates the latter. In fact, part of the reason for the fascination of El Cid by American historians and artists, such as Anna Huntington, is that his story is the story of a man who worked hard in his career to make a better living for himself. In this case, an accomplished warrior, who for a brief time, was able to carve out a kingdom for himself. Furthermore, the idea of a crusade in the Iberian peninsula really came a century after El Cid`s time.


  • [1] Menocal, Maria Rosa, Ornament of the World, Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 2002.
  • [2] Kelly, John N. D., The Oxford Dictionary of Popes, Oxford University Press, 1986.
  • [3] Reilly, Bernard, “The Kingdom of Leon-Castilla under King Alfonso VI,” The Library of Iberian Resources Online, 2003.
  • [4] Montgomery, Watt W., “Influence of Islam on Medieval Europe,” University Press of Edinburgh, 1992.
  • [5] R. Hitchcock, Mozarabs in Medieval and Early Modern Spain, Ashgate Publishing Company: Burlington, VT, 2008.
  • [6] S. Lay, The Reconquest Kings of Portugal: The Creation of a Medieval Frontier Monarchy, Palgrave Macmillan: New York, NY, 2009.
  • [7] A. Khalil, Liberation Square: Inside the Egyptian Revolution and the Rebirth of a Nation, Martins Press: New York, 2012.

  • Keywords: Spain, Andalucia, Toledo, Cordoba, Zaragoza, El Cid

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