As some military leaders have, Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar – known as “El Cid” (from the Arabic as-sid, meaning “the lord”) – has passed beyond history into legend. And like all legendary liberators, he looked to “dream the impossible dream” and “fight the unbeatable foe.”
Rodrigo’s father was a member of the minor nobility of Castile, but it was his mother’s relationships that meant the boy was brought up in the household of the king’s eldest son, Sancho II. When Sancho assumed the throne in 1065 AD, he appointed the 22-year-old de Vivar as his armiger regis (royal standard-bearer), or king’s champion and commander of the royal troops. In 1067, Rodrigo accompanied Sancho on the campaign against the Moorish kingdom of Zaragoza which made it a tributary of Castile. That same year Sancho launched a campaign to seize his brother Alfonso VI’s kingdom of Leon. Although legend would depict El Cid (the name given him by the Moors after Zaragoza) a reluctant supporter of the aggression, it is unlikely he had any real scruples and he certainly distinguished himself in the ensuing war. But when Sancho was killed besieging Zamora, El Cid quickly changed his allegiance, and married Alfonso’s niece to boot.
However, things did not go well at court; although Cid’s apologists would portray him as blameless victim of conniving nobles, Rodrigo’s perchance for arrogance eventually forced him into exile from Leon. Offering his services to the Muslim rulers of Zaragoza, he loyally served the caliph and his successor for a decade against Lérida and its Christian allies, notably Barcelona and Aragon. Come 1086 and the great Almoravid invasion from North Africa, Alfonso swallowed his ire and recalled El Cid. When the 18-month siege of Valencia finally ended in 1094, El Cid entered it as conqueror, had the former ruler burnt alive, and brought in a French bishop. He ruled there even-handed, favoring neither Christian nor Muslim, until his death in 1099.