By Peter Konieczny
Rodrigo Díaz, better known as El Cid, would find his greatest success in the year 1094, when he captured the city of Valencia. How he did it depends on which writer you believe.
At the beginning of the eleventh century, Iberia was split between the Muslim-ruled Caliphate of Córdoba, which controlled most of the Peninsula, and a handful of Christian states in the northern region. The difference across the Muslim-Christian divide was striking – the Caliphate, also known as al-Andalus, was prosperous, while the collection of northern kingdoms were among the poorest in Europe.
However, as the Caliphate collapsed in the opening decades of the century, al-Andalus would split up into its own jumble of often small and weak states known as taifas. The northern kingdoms would take advantage, sometimes to gain territory, but mostly for gold. They called it parias, but one can more easily refer to it as tribute, or protection money, and it poured into the north.
The Christian states – called Leon, Castile, Navarre, Galicia, Aragon, and Barcelona – all eagerly looked for their share, and like mobsters were either busy trying to collect more money or fighting each other for the spoils. Even so, the northern kingdoms grew rich, enticing other Europeans to emigrate and look for their piece of the action.
It was into this situation that Rodrigo Díaz was born around the year 1043. His father was a minor nobleman in the town of Vivar, and Rodrigo would spend his youth in the court of Fernando the Great, King of León and Castile. Fernando had earned his nickname by conquering his neighbours (defeating a brother and a brother-in-law), but when he died in 1065 he wanted all of his children to get a share of his kingdom. His eldest son, Sancho II, became King of Castile, while middle brother Alfonso was handed León and the youngest, García, got Galicia. Even Fernando’s two daughters were given control of their own cities. The father wanted his children to live in peace, but that wasn’t going to happen. The two older brothers attacked and conquered García’s kingdom, and then Sancho defeated Alfonso, sending him into exile.
During this time Rodrigo had become not only a loyal warrior for Sancho, but also his military commander and standard-bearer. He won several battles for his king, but could not prevent his assassination in 1072. Alfonso, who many suspected was behind the murder, returned from exile and became the new King of León and Castile as Alfonso VI.
Rodrigo served his new monarch, but the two did not get along well. In 1081 Díaz undertook a campaign against the city of Toledo, gaining loot and captives. However, this was done without Alfonso’s consent. The Historia Roderici, a biography of Rodrigo written in the early twelfth century, explains what happened next:
The courtiers who were envious of him held it against him and said with one voice to the king, ‘Lord King, your Highness must surely know that Rodrigo perpetrated this in order that all of us who live together in Saracen territory to take tribute from it will be killed by the Saracens and die there.’ The king was unjustly impressed and angered by this wicked and envious accusation. He expelled Rodrigo from his kingdom.
On his own
Rodrigo’s exile, which began in 1081, turned out to be the best thing for his career. Over the next dozen years, he worked as a kind of mercenary captain for Ahmad al-Muqtadir (1049-1082), the ruler of the taifa of Zaragoza, and his descendants. This involved fighting both Muslim and Christian enemies of Zaragoza, with El Cid decisively defeating the rulers of both Aragon and Barcelona in separate battles. He almost even had to fight against his king, Alfonso VI, in 1086, but at the last moment the Castilian ruler called off an attack against Zaragoza.
During these years Rodrigo would gain two nicknames – the Christians called him El Campeador, which comes from the Latin campidoctor, meaning fighter or battlefield commander. The other moniker was El Cid, which comes from the Arabic word al-Sayyad, or “lord”, which his Muslim colleagues bestowed upon him.
The coming of the Almoravids
While he may have failed in his campaign against Zaragoza, Alfonso VI was still enjoying the results of the most significant conquest of his reign. In 1085, the Castilian king would make use of the constantly shifting alliances and enemies within the taifa states to engineer a deal with Yahya II al-Qadir, the ruler of Toledo. Al-Qadir would hand over his city to Alfonso, while the latter provide military assistance to capture the city of Valencia.
Alfonso had gained an important city in Iberia, but he was now faced with a new enemy: the Almoravids. They were Berbers – nomadic tribesmen from North Africa – and over the last couple of decades had taken control of much of what is now Morocco. Under the leadership of Yusuf ibn Tashfin they followed a strict and pious form of Islam, one that loathed the more cosmopolitan lifestyle that could be found in al-Andalus. But with the loss of Toledo in 1085, many of the remaining taifa rulers decided to take the drastic measure of calling upon the Almoravids for help. As one taifa ruler later said:
I have no desire to be branded by my descendants as the man who delivered al-Andalus as prey to the infidels. I am loath to have my name cursed in every Muslim pulpit. And, for my part, I would rather be a camel-driver in Africa than a swineherd in Castile.
On October 23, 1086, Alfonso and his ally the king of Aragon were decisively defeated by the Almoravids at the Battle of al-Zallaqa. The Christian advance was now stopped, and ibn Tashfin was preparing to unite all of al-Andalus under his rule.
When Yahya II al-Qadir traded Toledo to Alfonso VI for the Castilian’s assistance in taking Valencia, he must have hoped that it would lead to a relatively quiet life ruling over this Mediterranean city. However, al-Qadir was viewed as so weak and incompetent that it seemed everyone in Iberia wanted to conquer his last remaining territory.
By 1092 the citizens of Valencia had enough of al-Qadir, and a group of them led by the qadi of the city, Ibn Jahhaf, seized control. Al-Qadir tried to escape – disguised as a woman – but was caught and executed. Ibn Jahhaf became the new ruler, but his goal was to call upon ibn Tashfin and ask for the Almoravids to come and take over the city.
Watching all this was Rodrigo Díaz. In previous years he had helped Valencia defend itself against other Christian attacks, but now he saw an opportunity to take the city for himself. Years of service as a mercenary leader had made him wealthy enough to lead a campaign, so in the summer of 1093 he brought an army to lay siege to Valencia.
We have two main sources for the events of 1093 and 1094. The first is the Historia Roderici, which curiously is not as detailed as one would expect. The other comes from a Muslim chronicler named ibn Alqama, who was a resident of Valencia. His work, which has only survived in portions, was called The clear exposition of the disastrous tragedy – unsurprisingly, it does not portray El Cid in a positive light.
Rodrigo began his attack by taking over the suburbs around Valencia, destroying crops and buildings, but not directly challenging the city. Instead his goal was to deprive them of food and supplies. At times he was threatening towards the citizens of Valencia, only to later change tack and try to negotiate. Meanwhile, the besieged residents placed their hopes on the Almoravids sending an army to come and drive the Christians away.
The Almoravids did arrive from the south, but then left without challenging Rodrigo to a battle. It has been suggested that Yusuf ibn Tashfin was too busy elsewhere in Iberia at this point, so the force he sent to assist Valencia was just too small. The city was then left to defend itself.
The Historia Roderici offers this explanation for what happened next:
Rodrigo continued to press the siege of Valencia even more closely for no little time. At long last he valiantly took it by assault. At once he subjected it to sack. He found and took possession of vast and innumerable riches: immense, uncountable quantities of gold and silver, precious jewellery, gems set in fine gold, treasures of various sorts, silken textiles decorated with precious gold. So vast were the hoards of riches which he seized in the city that he and his followers were rendered wealthier than it is possible to say.
Ibn Alqama gives a very different explanation – as the siege stretched out into the spring of 1094, the residents of Valencia began to starve. Eventually this forced ibn Jahhaf to begin negotiations, and on June 15th the gates of Valencia were opened for El Cid and his men to enter.
Valencia was then thoroughly looted. After maintaining a siege for nearly a year, Rodrigo would have been in desperate need of money to pay his troops. Moreover, the city defences had to be repaired quickly, for the Almoravids could have returned at any moment. Therefore, he looked for ways to extort and seize whatever wealth he could find.
One of his main targets was ibn Jahhaf. El Cid was convinced that the former ruler had not turned over the entire treasury of al-Qadir, so he arrested him along with his entire family. Ibn Alqama explains what Rodrigo did next:
When he had left them nothing, whether visible or concealed, he ordered a fire to be kindled. The qadi Ibn Jahhaf was dragged in, bound in shackles, surrounded by his family and his sons. A crowd of Muslims and Christians had assembled. [The Cid] then said to a group of Muslims, “What is the punishment according to your law for one who has killed his ruler?”; they remained silent. Then he said to them, “With us, his punishment is to be burnt alive.” He gave the order for him and his whole group to be brought to the fire, which warmed the face even at a great distance. The Christians and Muslims raised a shout, beseeching him to spare the children and members of the family, since they had committed no sin, and had no knowledge of these matters. He [only] complied with the wishes of the subjects after a prolonged struggle, and let the women and children go. A hole was dug for the qadi, who was put in it up to his waist… When [the fire] got near him, and lit up his face, he said, “In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful,” and pulled [the burning material] towards his body and was burnt to death, may God have mercy on him!
By September of 1094 the Almoravids had returned to reclaim the city. While the figure given by the Historia Roderici – 150,000 mounted men and 3000 footsoldiers – was an obvious exaggeration, the number of besiegers would have been very large and would have outnumbered the warriors available to El Cid. However, they were still not led by Yusuf ibn Tashfin; instead he had given command of this army to his nephew.
Rodrigo made it known to the Almoravids that if they tried to attack the city he would slaughter all of its Muslim residents. Meanwhile, the Campeador made preparations such as confiscating any weapons from the citizens and exiling those he thought might cause trouble during the siege.
The Historia Roderici explains that the Almoravid army was camped outside the walls of Valencia for ten days, occasionally firing arrows into the city but not making an attack. According to the chronicler, Rodrigo looked for an opportunity to strike:
There came a day when the enemy were as usual going round outside the city yelling and shouting and skirmishing, confident in the belief that they would capture it, when Rodrigo, the invincible warrior, trusting with his whole mind in God and His mercy, courageously made a sortie from the city: he was accompanied by his well-armed followers, and they shouted at the enemy and terrified them with threatening words. They fell upon them and a major encounter ensued… as soon as [the Almoravids] were defeated they turned their backs in flight. A multitude fell to the sword. Others with their wives and children were led captive to Rodrigo’s camp.
Ibn Alqama gives us more details on what happened in this battle. According to him, the Christian army was divided into two groups. The first made a sortie out of one gate and drew the Almoravid army to them. Meanwhile the Campeador led the other group through a different gate, and attacked the undefended camp. The Almoravids then panicked and fled.
This would be another major victory for El Cid, for he was the first person to defeat the Almoravids. He had gained even more valuable booty, and had given himself more time to consolidate his hold over Valencia.
Meanwhile, within the rest of al-Andalus there was shock and sadness at the loss of the city. As one poet lamented:
The fire has laid waste the lands of which you were called mistress and the great smoke thereof reaches you. There is no medicine for your sore infirmity and the physicians despair of healing you. Valencia! Valencia! From a broken heart have I uttered all these things…
Simon Barton and Richard Fletcher (ed. and trans.), The World of El Cid: Chronicles of the Spanish Reconquest (Manchester University Press, 2000)
Barton, Simon, “El Cid, Cluny and the Medieval Spanish Reconquista”, The English Historical Review 126 (2011), pp. 517-43
Brian A. Catlos, Infidel Kings and Unholy Warriors: Faith, Power and Violence in the Age of Crusade and Jihad (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014)
Fletcher, Richard, The Quest for El Cid (Oxford University Press, 1989)
This article was first published in Medieval Warfare VII:6, where you can read more about El Cid. Click here to buy a copy.