El Cid, the Lonely Crusader

El Cid, the Lonely Crusader
El Cid, the Lonely Crusader

The Reconquest of Spain from the Muslim occupation suffered several setbacks and reversals. But in the darkest hours, a selfless hero always arose to stem an impending onslaught. Such a danger threatened the Spanish Christians late in the eleventh century when a fanatical horde of North African Berbers invaded the peninsula. An overwhelming disaster was averted when Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar, known as “El Cid” (the lord, chief), resisted the whole might of Islam.

For 250 years after the Arab conquest, the Spaniards, with an excruciatingly painful effort, reclaimed approximately one-third of the peninsula. Then a rapacious raider, Al-Mansur, counterattacked and virtually destroyed all the progress so painfully achieved. Al-Mansur died in 1002 and, as one chronicle stated, “was buried in hell.” Shortly after his death, the previously unified Caliphate of Cordoba broke down into small independent kingdoms, which left them vulnerable as the Christian kingdoms turned again to the offensive. By the middle of the century, Leon and the emerging Kingdom of Castile combined under the leadership of Ferdinand I and pushed the boundary back to the Douro River basin.

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The luxurious life in the main cities of Al-Andalus (Muslim Spain), such as Cordoba, Seville, and Toledo, also contributed to their decline. Although the Arabs achieved exceptional cultural advancement, they did so by abandoning the military spirit. Progress in commerce and wealth had produced a decadence and decline in the original fighting character of the Muslim conquerors, which resulted in the love of ease and the indulgence of physical pleasures.

In contrast to the Andalusian fragmentation, a profound religious and warlike spirit dominated all the actions of the Christian states to the North. In spite of their rivalries, these kingdoms envisioned a united Spain, and their hope of unity would be achieved by the cohesive powers of Christianity. The crusading spirit and the vitality of Christendom, in general, were aided by the great revival of Saint Gregory VII and the monks of Cluny.

Ferdinand and the raiding policy

Although the Spanish Christians had the spirit and desire to mount the reconquest of their stolen lands, they lacked the manpower and wealth because of al-Mansur’s decades of ravishing. They built up their own strength—and weakened their enemies’—by raiding and looting the Muslim kingdoms and extracting as much tribute as possible. In return for the tribute and some strategic castles, the Christians agreed to provide protection. The occupation of territory would have to wait until later.

Ferdinand I and his Kingdom of Castile typified and led the Spanish frontier warfare in the middle of the century. He spent the first nineteen years of his reign in bringing Galicia, Leon, and Castile under his authority. Ferdinand did conquer some Muslim cities, most notably Coimbra in present-day Portugal, but for the most part, he contented himself with terrorizing the vast territories that surrounded the cities of Toledo, Seville, Badajoz, and Saragossa. The kings of these small kingdoms gladly paid Fernando a large amount of tribute to leave them in pursuit of their peaceful activities and to protect them against stronger adversaries, both Muslim and Christian.

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At his death, the energetic King not only divided his dominions among his three sons—with Sancho receiving Castile; Alfonso, Leon and Asturias; and Garcia, the youngest, obtaining Galicia—but he also distributed the areas of tribute, with Saragossa going to Sancho; Toledo to Alfonso, and Seville and Badajoz to the youngest.

El Cid’s early years

When the noble father of the teenaged Rodrigo died around 1058, the future champion went to the court of Prince Sancho where he studied law and excelled in all the knightly exercises. He earned his reputation as a mighty warrior in 1063 when a dispute arose with Navarre over the ownership of a recently reclaimed castle. Both sides agreed to settle it by single combat. The twenty-year-old Castilian subdued the champion of Navarre by the sword and was thereafter acclaimed “Campeador,” the “Conqueror.”

Sancho strongly disapproved of the partition of the kingdom at his father’s death and promptly challenged Alfonso to a battle for control of their inheritance. In two engagements, Rodrigo de Vivar led the Castilian army and his King Sancho to victory. Alfonso, stripped of his kingdom, went into exile with the Muslim king of Toledo. The two brothers had already connived to dispossess Garcia of his share earlier.

Urraca, a sister of the competing brothers and a strong supporter of Alfonso, entered into the family dispute, and through her influence Sancho was treacherously assassinated. The new King, now styled Alfonso VI, was suspected of complicity because of his close relationship to Urraca. Rodrigo, as Sancho’s champion and the leader of the Castilian nobility, exercised his legal right to force Alfonso to swear an oath of total innocence. Realizing that if he refused he would no longer be King, Alfonso complied. El Cid administered the oath and, on so doing, certainly jeopardized his future relationship with the King.

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After the oath of purgation, the Cid then swore allegiance to Alfonso as his liege lord, a loyalty that Rodrigo faithfully observed for the rest of his life despite unjust and abusive treatment. During Sancho’s reign, he had held the highest rank in the kingdom. Now distrusted by the King and extremely disliked by the King’s Leonese favorites, Rodrigo served his King in near obscurity for the next seven years.

The animosity between the faithful Rodrigo and his envious enemies reached a climax a few years later. While the Cid was occupied handling legal matters, the principal military honors of the kingdom went to the worthless Count Garcia Ordonez, whose ambition, Ramon Menendez Pidal points out, “was only exceeded by his ineptitude.” Late in 1079 the King sent the Cid to Seville to collect tribute from the Muslim King, who was in arrears. At that moment, for some unexplained reason, Ordonez and four Castilian noblemen at the head of a large Moorish army from Granada led a destructive raiding expedition against Seville. El Cid, with only the small escort that accompanied him, rushed to repel the invaders. In a bitterly contested battle, the army of Granada suffered heavy losses and fled, leaving Ordonez and the King’s vassals in the Cid’s power. After three days the great warrior released the prisoners but kept their tents and weapons as spoils of war.

This event increased the hatred and envy of the King’s favorites toward Rodrigo, which infected the attitude of Alfonso himself, so much so that when the latter began the great work of his reign, the conquest of Toledo, the Cid was left ignored in his castle lest, as some have observed, he receive too much glory. Nevertheless, in retaliation for a daring Muslim raid, the indomitable soldier led his followers into the kingdom of Toledo on his own initiative with his usual triumphant success, capturing 7,000 prisoners and much booty. The irritated King, agitated once again by his inner circle, lost all objectivity, stripped the Cid of his rank and lands, and banished him from the kingdom.


Three hundred of Castile’s best knights followed El Cid into exile. Faced with the necessity of providing an income for his vassals, Rodrigo assumed the responsibility of protecting Mutamin, the Muslim King of Saragossa, principally against that king’s brother, al-Hajib, King of Lerida. The situation was further complicated, however, when he King of Aragon and Berenguer, Count of Barcelona, allied themselves against Mutamin in their lust for spoils. Despite the attacks of so many adventurers, the Cid maintained his protectorate and won several spectacular victories against overwhelming odds in difficult circumstances.

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The lure of the wealth of Saragossa proved too much for Alfonso VI, so early in 1085 he invested the coveted city. Rodrigo, ever the Christian knight with a principled conscience, refused to fight against his King and withdrew once again into obscurity.

Success and failure of Alfonso VI

Alfonso now left the siege of Saragossa to others and returned to Toledo to begin the most illustrious part of his career, which greatly advanced the cause of the Reconquest. For four years he had been tightening a siege around the ancient capital of the old Visigoth Kingdom, choking off all possible assistance. Finally the Muslims capitulated and on May 25, 1085, Alfonso triumphantly entered Toledo. Strategically, the Christians had captured a salient fortress that extended their boundary line from the Douro River to the Tagus.

With its capture, the Andalusian Muslims could easily see their ultimate defeat. Al-Mutamid, the King of Seville, decided that no options remained except to seek help from the Berber emir Yusuf ibn Tashefin and the fierce Almoravids from the North African desert. When al-Mutamid’s son observed that the Almoravids could be just as predatory as the Christians, he replied, “I would rather be a camel driver in Africa than a swineherd in Castile.”

Yusuf landed in Spain with a sizable army and collected reinforcements as he marched northward. Alfonso lifted his siege at Aragossa and, with Aragonese and French contingents, intercepted the Moors five miles outside Badajoz at Sagrajas (Zallaka). The swift Berber horsemen utterly routed the Christians, who lacked maneuverability and discipline. Alfonso barely escaped with his life.

Rival of the Holy War

The success of the uncompromising Almoravids that revived the Holy War led to a reconciliation between Alfonso and the Cid. Rodrigo returned to the East and sent his knights raiding in all directions. Seeing the destruction of their crops and livestock, several Muslim kingdoms, including the great stronghold of Valencia, hastened to pay tribute and submit to the relentless Castilian. In 1088, Alfonso once again gave in to his irrational rage and the court intrigue of his worthless favorites and drove from his realm the only commander capable of restraining the new Muslim power.

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Backed by the conservative jurists or doctors of the law, Yusuf installed a new spirit of fanaticism and resistance in Al-Andalus. One by one he deposed the soft, easy-living Muslim kings whose palaces had become centers of pleasure and stifled spirituality. They appealed to Alfonso, who had also been attracted to the sensual side of life. In each case, the debauched King went down in defeat before the better-trained and organized Muslim cavalry.

El Cid holds the East

When El Cid returned to the East, he found himself completely abandoned and surrounded by enemies. The eastern Moors knew that Alfonso had renounced his powerful vassal and anticipated help from the advancing Almoravids.

During this darkest moment, the vaunted courage of the Cid did not fail him and he determinedly set about reconquering the rich territories he had once before subdued. He declared war against his old enemy al-Hajib, the King of Lerida. Raiding and ravaging, he laid the entire territory to waste. As before, al-Hajib called on Berenguer, the Count of Barcelona, to come to his assistance, and the latter assembled a large army of Catalan horsemen to drive out the Castilian.

The Cid took up his position in a rocky ravine that opened up into a narrow-necked valley. There, his greatly out-numbered knights would be less vulnerable. Early in the morning, Berenguer attacked through the valley with all expectation of a resounding victory. The Cid rushed out from behind the rocks. In one ferocious charge, he attacked the main column with Berenguer in the lead and sent the Catalans into wild disorder. When the dust cleared, it became apparent that the Cid had won a great victory and had captured Berenguer with 5,000 of his knights, whom he held for ransom—those who could paid. In a spirit of chivalry, the Cid released the rest from their burdens.

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The Count formally renounced all claims to the lands of al-Hajib and handed them over to the protection of the Cid. Rodrigo, utilizing his reputation of invincibility, formed a vast protectorate in eastern and south-eastern Spain that included Saragossa and Valencia, but he was to have the greatest difficulty in maintaining it. In all the cities and towns, an inflexible Muslim faction developed under Almoravid influence and awaited an opportunity to rebel against Christian suzerainty.

While Rodrigo was away solidifying his hold on Saragossa, he received bad news. The Almoravid faction in Valencia had murdered the compliant Muslim King and gained control of the city. Moreover, a large force under ibn Ayesha, Yusuf ’s son, had already conquered Murcia and was advancing toward Valencia, having accepted the surrender of the smaller towns of Denia, Jativa, and Alcira.

El Cid captures Valencia

Late in 1092, El Cid began the campaign to retake the city by raiding the Valencian countryside. Once he had captured the suburbs outside the walls, he applied a stranglehold around the city. Strangely, the Almoravid army of ibn Ayesha watched as if paralyzed by fear as Rodrigo consolidated his control over the entire area, even regaining the surrendered castles. Finally, Valencia, reduced to starvation, capitulated in June, 1094. This time the Cid Campeador occupied the key defensive positions inside the walls and indicated that his tolerance for peaceful coexistence had ended.

This one stunning defeat spurred Yusuf to make a more determined effort and avenge the severe blemish on his otherwise perfect military record. Over a hundred thousand African and Andalusian Moors, riding to the demoralizing sound of their drums, encircled the great walled city of Valencia and began to shower arrows on the houses and tents of the defending Christians, who numbered only a few thousand. The dauntless Cid encouraged his soldiers to resist and pray, but he could see that the usual tactics of hiding behind the walls would ensure eventual defeat.

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After ten days, the Moors amassed a great force and moved against a main gate. Suddenly the gate burst open. The Cid and his Christian knights charged out, surprising the Muslims by their frightening boldness and speed. With a violent clash, they smashed into the center of the Mohammedan ranks and drove them back. The superior discipline and armament of the Cid’s troops gave him an advantage which broke down the cohesiveness of the Moors. When they turned to flee, the Christians fell upon them, inflicting terrible losses. When the Cid returned to his family, they could understand the ferocity of the struggle. The enemy’s blood covered his entire sword and had run up his arm to the elbow.

A few more victories remained for the Christian champion before he died in 1099. Much of the territory controlled by the Cid would revert back to the Muslims for a short period, but the great warrior had broken the force of the Almoravid invasion and allowed the knights of Aragon to build up their strength. Two young brothers, successive kings of Aragon who had ridden with the Cid, Pedro I and Alfonso the Battler, led the fight in the next century. In the West, El Cid’s great-great-grandson, the Castilian King Alfonso VIII, won the definitive victory over the Mohammedans at Las Navas de Tolosa in 1212, and his grandson Saint Ferdinand III drove all the Moors save those in the mountains of Grenada back to Africa. In the advance of Christianity, few have left such a legacy.

Bibliographical note: This article was largely based on Ramon Menendez Pidal, The Cid and His Spain (London, 1934, reissue, 1971).

First seen on Crusade Magazine, Issue July/August 2000.