El Cid: Brief Biography

Rodrigo de Vivar (1043?-1099)
Rodrigo or Ruy Díaz de Vivar, better known as el Cid or el Campeador, is the hero of the Castilian epic poem, Poema (or Cantar) de mío Cid.

The Poema is not a historical document but a literary work inspired by Rodrigo’s life during his second exile and his relationship with his king, Alfonso VI. Historically, Rodrigo’s life differs in many respects from that depicted in the Poema.

Historical Context.
Some historical context might help us understand the political jungle of 11th-century Spain, in which the Cid lived.  In a broad sense, the Spanish Peninsula was divided into two general groups identified by religion: Christian Spain and al-Andalus (Muslim Spain). 

Both these groups were further subdivided. Christian Spain was made up of the kingdoms of León-Castile, Aragón, Navarra, and the County of Barcelona.

Al-Andalus was composed of several small kingdoms (taifas), following the break up of the Caliphate of Córdoba in 1031. The main taifas bordering the Christian kingdoms were Toledo, Zaragoza, and Badajoz.  Valencia, which features prominently in the Cid`s life and in the Poema, was not so distant from the County of Barcelona.

In 1085 the city of Toledo fell to Alfonso VI of León-Castile. It was a significant conquest  for two reasons.  1. Strategically it was a blow to Muslim Spain since the centre of the peninsula was now in Christian hands. 2. Psychologically it was a major boost for Christian Spain since Toledo was the ancient capital and spiritual home of  Visigothic Spain, the reestablishment of which had long been the expressed goal of the monarchs of Leon. 

The result was that other taifa rulers, fearing the expansionist mood of Alfonso, called on their fellow Muslims in North Africa for help.  These were the Almoravids, fundamentalist Berbers who, under the leadership of Yusuf ibn Tashufin, defeated an army of King Alfonso near Badajoz in 1086. After a brief hiatus, the Almoravids set about reuniting what remained of al-Andalus under their rule, a goal they achieved within 20 years.(Significantly, however, they were unable to retake Toledo.)

There are some important points to keep in mind here.
1. All borders were very unstable, not only between Christian Spain and al-Andalus, but also between the Christian and taifa kingdoms themselves.
2. The Christian kingdoms were stronger than the taifas, and were regularly able to extract parias (tributes) from the taifa rulers in return for protection.
3. Christian and Muslim kingdoms frequently fought among themselves.
4. In their struggles to retain or expand their power, Christian rulers enlisted Muslim soldiers against fellow Christians, and vice versa Muslim rulers sought help from Christians against fellow Muslims.
5. Mercenary soldiers were commonplace; the Cid himself is an example.

At the time Rodrigo was born, the most powerful Christian kingdom was León-Castile, united under Ferdinand I (ruled 1035-65).  Fernando had arranged for his kingdom to be divided between his three sons upon his death. The events that followed can be summarised simply: instability and chaos as the brothers struggled for dominance.

The oldest, Sancho (who had inherited Castile), prevailed, conquering Galicia from the youngest (García) and forcing Alfonso, who had received León, into exile … in Moorish Toledo! (García went to Seville). But fate was not generous to Sancho. In 1072 he was assassinated while besieging the town of Zamora.  Since he was childless, he was replaced by the exiled Alfonso, whose reign as king jointly of León and Castile (1065-1109) was to be decisive for the reconquest of the peninsula.

Rodrigo de Vivar (1043?-99): His Life.

Statue of El Cid in Burgos.

Born into the lower nobility in the Castilian village of Vivar (just north of Burgos) around 1043, Rodrigo entered the court of Ferdinand I some time in his youth as a member of Sancho’s household. 

He first distinguished himself in the Battle of Graus, 1063. Not a particularly important battle in itself, it nevertheless exemplifies the political complexities of the time. King Ramiro I of Aragón had attacked the Muslim (i.e. taifa) kingdom of Zaragoza. Ferdinand I of León-Castile sent Sancho to help the king of Zaragoza, al-Muqtadir, recover Graus!

Why? Very simply because Ferdinand feared the expansion of Aragón. Sancho was successful and Ramiro was killed in the battle. It so happens that Ramiro was Sancho’s uncle; so much for blood being thicker than water!  One historian describes the situation succinctly: a Castilian prince defeats and kills his Aragonese uncle in order to preserve the territorial integrity of a Muslim ally (Fletcher 113).

When Ferdinand died, Rodrigo remained a loyal and important figure in Sancho’s court in Castile.  He was elevated to commander of the royal troops when only 22 years old, a sure recognition of his military prowess and organising abilities.

In the ensuing power struggles between Sancho and Alfonso, Rodrigo was instrumental in helping Sancho defeat his brother. Following Sancho’s assassination in Zamora in 1072, Rodrigo then passed into the service of Alfonso upon the latter’s return from exile. Although he did not enjoy the same stature as he had under Sancho, Rodrigo was nevertheless entrusted with various tasks for Alfonso, which he seems to have carried out diligently.

In 1074 or 1075, Rodrigo married a young noblewoman from León, Jimena Díaz.  Little is known about Jimena’s family, but it is believed that she was a niece or distant cousin of the king himself. 

The couple had one son and two daughters.  The son, Diego, was killed in Consuegra in 1097, fighting against the Almoravids. The older daughter, Cristina, married the Prince of Navarra, and the younger, María, married Ramón Berenguer III, Count of Barcelona.

In 1079 Rodrigo was in Seville charged with collecting the paria owed to Alfonso by that taifa  kingdom. Here he got himself entangled in local politics.  Another mission had been sent by Alfonso to the neighbouring taifa of Granada for the same purpose of collecting paria. Whilst the two missions were in the respective taifa capitals, the two Muslim leaders took advantage of their Christian visitors to settle scores between themselves. 

As a result the Cid found himself in battle against fellow Christians from the court of Alfonso VI, the most notable being the Count García Ordóñez. The events that followed were embarrassing for the Count.  The forces from Granada were defeated and the Count found himself a prisoner of the Cid for three days and then divested of his weapons before being freed.

It so happens that the Count García Ordóñez was one of Alfonso’a closest advisers, and had accompanied the king during his exile in Toledo. With such a powerful enemy at court, the Cid’s position was precarious and rumours soon circulated that the Cid had kept for himself some of the paria from Seville.

Still, it wasn’t until 1081 that the Cid fell foul of the king, when he made an unauthorised raid into the taifa of Toledo, then under Alfonso’s protection. The Cid’s audacious and arbitrary action made it easy for the king to banish him and undoubtedly pleased his enemies at court. Cast upon his own devices, the Cid spent the next five years as a mercenary, fighting against both the Christian and Moorish enemies of his new master, al-Muqtadir, the Muslim king of Zaragoza (the same ruler he had helped defend at the Battle of Graus), and his successors.

For a brief period (1086-89), the Cid was back in Alfonso’s service, but once again he was exiled, this time for having ostensibly failed to come to Alfonso’s aid against the Almoravids in Aledo, south west of Murcia. Alfonso reacted angrily, confiscating Rodrigo’s property and briefly imprisoning his family. 

This time the Cid struck out on his own, gathering around him his own army, pillaging the land along the Mediterranean and fighting Christians (notably the Count of Barcelona, Berenguer Ramón II) and Moors alike.

By 1089, Rodrigo was sufficiently powerful to make the Moorish ruler of Valencia, al-Qadir, his tributary, in effect replacing Alfonso as al-Qadir’s protector.  Alfonso responded in 1092 by preparing a siege against Valencia. However, he was forced to lift the siege when news reached him that the Cid had plundered an area of his kingdom in the upper Ebro valley.

More specifically, it was the county that belonged to García Ordóñez, the same García whom the Cid had humiliated in 1079, and who was, as the Poema indicates (verse 2998), a bitter enemy of the Cid. García Ordóñez was left impotent, and Alfonso undoubtedly uncomfortable at the power Rodrigo had amassed.

In the meantime, the Almoravids were advancing steadily northwards and Rodrigo decided to capture Valencia outright.  After a siege of almost a year, he entered the city in June of 1094. By now the Cid was one of the most powerful men in Christian Spain, and the conquest of Valencia confirmed his status.

But the loss of Valencia was keenly felt in al-Andalus and by late 1094 a large Almoravid force was sent to recover the city. Rather than await a siege, the Cid took the unusual step of sallying out against the approaching Almoravids. 

Dividing his forces into two parts, each leaving the city by different gates, he succeeded in routing the Almoravids at Cuart de Poblet, just north-west of the city. It was a victory that resounded far and wide, praised by Christians and lamented by Muslims.

We know little of the relationship between Rodrigo and Alfonso following the capture of Valencia. The fact that Rodrigo’s son, Diego, died fighting under Alfonso in 1097 suggests that they probably reached an accommodation.  Nevertheless, Alfonso must always have been suspicious of such a powerful figure, one who although still nominally his vassal was in fact ruler of his own fiefdom (which he defended successfully against the Almoravids on several occasions).

Rodrigo died in bed, in October 1099, having demonstrated to other Christians that the Almoravids were not invincible.  Undoubtedly many took note, too, that a modestly born lower noble had, by his own efforts, succeeded in becoming a man of considerable consequence, so much so that he was able to marry his daughters into royal families.

Almoravid pressure on Valencia continued after Rodrigo’s death. His widow, Jimena, defended the city until 1102, when she eventually obeyed Alfonso`s command to abandon it to the enemy.

 Valencia remained in Muslim hands until 1238.

Alfonso had considered defending the city, but Valencia was far away and he needed his troops to defend his territories inland.  Jimena took Rodrigo`s remains with her and interred them in the monastery of San Pedro de Cardeña, just south of Burgos.  After her death, she was buried alongside him. Their remains were later transferred to Burgos and buried in the transept of the cathedral.

Blackburn, Paul transl.    Poem of the Cid Norman: Oklahoma 1966 (1998)

Dodds, Jerrylin; Menocal, Maria R; Balbale, Abigail K   The Arts of Intimacy: Christians, Jews, and Muslims in the making of Castilian Culture  New Haven 2008
Fletcher, Richard  The Quest for El Cid London 1989
Hamilton, Rita & Perry, Janet The Poem of the Cid  Manchester 1975; Penguin 1984 Prose translation, with very useful introduction.
Lowney,  Chris A Vanished World: Muslims, Christians, and Jews in Medieval Spain Oxford 2006
Smith, Colin Poema de Mío Cid  Madrid 1996
Watt, Montgomery and Cachia, Pierre  A History of Islamic Spain Edinburgh 1965
A very useful web site –in both Spanish and English– on matters relating to the Cid can be found at: www.caminodelcid.org
Image of statue of El Cid in Burgos: By photographer: ElCaminodeSantiago09 2006 – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/El_Cid

Map: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Maps_of_Spain