my knowledge of El Cid, the legendary Spanish warrior, is limited to say the least. I probably know more about Don Quixote and I’ve never read a word of Cervantes. when we saw his statue leading the charge over the Arlanzón River in Burgos, I had no idea it represented; only after looking at the inscription of the base in a photo later did I see his name.
born in 1043 as Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar, nobleman, military leader and diplomat, El Cid commanded both Moorish and blended Moorish-Christian troops during the mid-to-late 11th century. he came from a family of courtiers, bureaucrats, and aristocrats, though later peasants considered him one of their own. he significantly elevated his status and those of his heirs through his marriage to a kinswoman of Alfonso VI (Jimena Diaz) and by virtue of his daughter’s marriages to other noblemen. to this day, many European monarchs can trace an ancestral link back to El Cid through his grandson, García Ramírez of Navarre, as well as a great-granddaughter.
his title derives from both Spanish and Arabic — el signifying “he” in both languages; cid stemming from sidi or sayyid, meaning “lord” or “master;” campeador translating to “champion” or “challenger”: The Master Champion. across the continent at the time, it was common for leaders of armies to pit champions against one another to determine a battle outcome. El Cid served Alfonso VI of Castilla (following an exile from the Castillian court and reinstatement after he’d spent several years fighting for the Moors).
he began his military career under Sancho II, fighting against the Moorish stronghold of Zaragoza in 1057 on his behalf and defeating an Aragonese knight in single combat to receive his honorific title of “campeador.” after Sancho III’s assassination (result of a pact — and possible plot — between Alfonso VI and his sister Urraca), Alfonso VI returned to reclaim the throne of Castilla; the populace was understandably suspicious of his intentions. according to the epic poem, El Cid led a group of men to force Alfonso to swear publicly on holy relics that he did not have a hand in his brother’s death. though widely reported as fact there’s little in the way of “historical evidence” to support this proposition.
several years later, and without Alfonso’s consent, El Cid led an excursion against Moorish-held Granada; Alfonso disapproved and consequently exiled the Campeador for several years (for this among other reasons). El Cid moved to Barcelona at first and later entered into the service of Moorish kings, defending some of the very territory he helped to retake on behalf of Spanish kings a few years previously. his success emboldened him and, once Alfonso recalled him (in 1087), he didn’t stick around Castilla very long — he had an eye to allow the weakening of both Alfonso’s army and the army he commanded, providing him opportunity to ruler over Valencia. by the middle of 1094, El Cid had carved out his own principality along the coast near Valencia; although he technically ruled in Alfonso’s name he acted independently.
his reign over Valencia lasted five years before his former allies/subordinates besieged the city and he died. while the famine and unsanitary living conditions that accompanied the siege undermined his health, many believe that the death of his only son the preceding year precipitated his death. legend holds that his wife had his corpse dressed in full armor and set atop his horse in an effort to bolster morale among his besieged troops. two years after his death (and still several months before Valencia finally fell into Moorish control), his wife fled the city for Burgos where his body was buried (and later re-interred at the enter of the Burgos Cathedral).