We know him as El Cid, but the character portrayed by Charlton Heston has little in common with the historical reality. He was not a shining knight defending Christianity against the Infidel, which was the inspiring legend created over the centuries after his death. The real El Cid, Rodrigo Díaz, was born near Burgos and although legend has him coming from humble origins, in fact his father was a large landowner and his mother was from a noble Castilian family.
As a young man he was a knight in the service of king Sancho II de Castilla. Because of his fighting prowess he was given the nickname “el Campeador” which means “battlefiend warrior”. Although he fought against Sancho’s brother Alfonso, on Sancho’s death he became Alfonso’s most trusted knight and was given the aristocratic noblewoman Jimena Díaz as his wife.
He was sent to Arab kingdoms (taifas) to collect tributes in return for protection from the Christian king. On one such trip to Sevilla he became involved in their fight against the taifa of Granada. As he grew in personal prestige and power he started to sack areas under Alfonso’s protection which eventually led to his banishment from the kingdom of Castilla. He then offered his services to the Arabic king of Zaragoza whom he served for five years during which time he fought against King Alfonso. It was probably in this period that he was given the name “sidi” which means “my lord” in Arabic: a title later translated into Castilian as “mío Cid”.
After the fall of Toledo to Alfonso In 1085 and the invasion of Almoravid tribes from northern Africa, El Cid again joined forces with Alfonso. Much of El Cid’s fighting was in the east, particularly against the Almoravid ruler of the Taifa of Valencia. He created an alliance with nine taifas to protect them against the count of Barcelona in exchange for tributes and started keeping the money himself instead of sending it to the king. As a result he was banished once more by the king, after failing to join him in fighting against the Almoravids in Murcia, Granada and Sevilla. This time the king also expropriated El Cid’s goods and land in Castilla. These events confirmed El Cid as an independent war lord and the most powerful man in the east of the peninsula.
In 1094 he went one step further and conquered Valencia after a terrible year-long siege and declared himself “Prínce Rodrigo el Campeador”. He consecrated a Christian cathedral on the site of the mosque and created an independent bishopric to ensure his complete autonomy. He married his two daughters to Christian monarchs of Barcelona and Pamplona with the result that many later Castilian kings were his direct descendents.
At his death in 1099 his wife Jimena continued his rule as the Lady of Valencia. However, on her death in 1102 Valencia returned to Arabic control. El Cid’s body now lies next to his wife in Burgos Cathedral.