El Cid and the Spanish Reconquista

El Cid 1

“When it was night the Cid lay down. In a deep sleep he fell,                                   And to him in a vision came the angel Gabriel:                                                          “Ride, Cid, most noble Campeador, for never yet did knight                                  Ride forth upon an hour whose aspect was so bright.                                             While thou shalt live good fortune shall be with thee and shine. ” ”                            El Cantar del Mio Cid

The seven hundred year period between 722 and 1492 has long been known to historians of Spain as the ‘Reconquista’ and the Spanish have organised their medieval history around the drama of this glorious event which over time has become a cherished feature of the self-image of the Spanish people.

It has become embellished into a sort of organised Catholic national crusade and although there is some truth in this much of it in reality was simply due to the expansionist territorial ambitions of competing northern Spanish kingdoms such as Asturias and León.

In legend the focal point of the story of the Reconquista has been the heroic tale of Rodrigo Díaz de Bivar or El Cid, the National hero of Spain and revered by many as being single handedly responsible for the victory of the Catholic Kingdoms over the North African Moors but whilst El Cid was undoubtedly a great warrior and soldier he was only one of many who contributed to the Crusade.

The explanation for his pre-eminence is the responsibility of Ramón Menéndez Pidal, who was the foremost Spanish historian of his age and the author of the standard biography of the Cid, first published in 1929.  Pidal gave substantial credibility to the ‘Poema de Mio Cid’, which was a work written at the height of the crusading age and, crucially, fifty years after the Cid’s death.  Then, his valiant deeds against the Muslims made him a suitable exemplar to inspire a generation of holy warriors fighting the Crusades, and his life quickly moved into the realms of legend.

In the eighth century almost all of the Iberian Peninsula was conquered by hostile Muslim armies from North Africa. Only a number of areas in the mountainous north that roughly correspond to modern Asturias, Cantabria, Navarre and northern Aragon managed to resist the initial invasion and many years before El Cid this was to become the breeding ground of the Reconquista.

Life under Moorish occupation was rather mixed, for many it wasn’t that bad and under Islam, the status of Christians and Jews was recognised, there was great religious and social tolerance and in return for a small tax they were free to practice their own religion but for others there was persecution and intolerance and this forced the disaffected to migrate north to take refuge in the Christian Kingdoms.   Conversion to Islam proceeded at a steadily increasing pace however and by the end of the tenth century Muslims of ethnic Iberian origin are believed to have comprised the majority of the population of Andalusia.

El Cid Babieca and La Tizona

In legend the story of El Cid and the reconquest has acquired a rather simple plot of Christian Spain against Muslim Moors but throughout this period the situation in Iberia was much more  intricate.  As well as fighting against each other Christian and Muslim rulers commonly fought amongst themselves, the Berbers of North Africa, who had provided the bulk of the invading armies, clashed with the fundamentalist Arab leadership from the Middle East and to further complicate matters interfaith alliances were not unusual.  The fighting along the Christian Muslim frontier was punctuated by prolonged periods of peace and truces and distorting the situation even further were the legions of mercenaries who frequently switched sides and fought for cash.

El Cid lived at this confusing time and he too at various times had Muslim allies and at other times worked for Muslim paymasters against Christians because he was, in short, a warrior for hire, a mercenary, who spent much of his career fighting for whoever paid him the most.

In popular culture the reconquest has been raised to the status of a crusade and the expulsion of the Moors as liberation from an occupying army but again this is not strictly the case.  At this time Córdoba became the largest, richest and most sophisticated city in Western Europe.  Mediterranean trade and cultural exchange flourished.  Muslims imported a rich intellectual tradition from the Middle East and North Africa and Muslim and Jewish scholars played an important part in reviving and expanding classical Greek learning in Western Europe.

The indigenous cultures interacted with Muslim and Jewish cultures in complex ways, thus giving the region a distinctive culture.  Outside the cities, the land ownership system from Roman times remained largely intact as Muslim leaders rarely dispossessed landowners, and the introduction of new crops and techniques led to an improvement and expansion of agriculture.

However, by the eleventh century, Muslim lands had fractured into rival kingdoms and this encouraged the northern Christian kingdoms to expand southwards with the opportunity to greatly enlarge their territories and consolidate their positions.

As early as 739 Muslim forces were driven from Asturias and a little later Frankish forces established Christian counties south of the Pyrenees and these areas were to develop into the Kingdoms of Navarre, Aragon and Catalonia.  The capture of Toledo in 1085 was soon followed by the completion of the Christian powers reconquest of all the northern territories.  El Cid’s greatest contribution to the Reconquesta came during this phase of the war and his finest victory was the capture of Valencia in 1094, which he later died defending in 1099.

El Cid Burgos

After a period of Muslim resurgence in the twelfth century the great Moorish strongholds in the south fell to Christian Spain in the thirteenth, Córdoba in 1236 and Seville in 1248 leaving only Granada in the south, which since 1238 was a dependent vassal of the King of Castile.

In 1469, the crowns of the Christian kingdoms of Castile and Aragon were united by the marriage of Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon.  In 1478 the Moors were driven from the Canary Islands and in 1492 the Christians captured Granada, ending seven hundred and eighty-one years of Islamic rule in Iberia. The Treaty of Granada guaranteed religious tolerance toward Muslims but the new state of Spain was beginning to flex its muscles and the year 1492 marked the arrival in the New World of Christopher Columbus and a law requiring Jews to convert to Catholicism under the Spanish Inquisition or face expulsion from Spanish territories.  The Catholic Monarchy instigated a policy of unrestrained ethnic cleansing and not long after, Muslims too became subject to the same requirement.

 El Cid


More posts about El Cid:

El Cid and Alvar Fáñez – another hero of the Reconquest

El Cid and his horse Babieca

El Cid and his Wife Ximena

El Cid and La Tizona

El Cid and Saint James

El Cid and Alfonso VI

El Cid and the City of Burgos

El Cid and the Castle of Belmonte

El Cid – The Film Fact and Fiction



27 responses to “El Cid and the Spanish Reconquista

  1. Great post!

    Just an small not accurate detail is “As early as 739 Muslim forces were driven from Galicia” I’m so sorry that you are confusing ASTURIAS with Galicia. In fact… in 739 Muslim forces were driven from ASTURIAS… in Covadonga battle.

    Again thank you for this great post!

  2. Very interesting posts!
    Last summer my husband and I were to Burgos, to the first stages on the way of the Cid’s route. I leave a link to my post. I’m sure you like it. http://thespanishshawl.wordpress.com/2012/08/14/el-cid-cabalga/

  3. can you please include a bibliography/ references/ recommended reading?

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  19. More informative history

  20. The major battle-scenes for the film El Cid were shot in Castellon, a coastl town between Valencia and Tarragona, and I remember being taken there in the early days of Spanish tourism to see the wide, pristine beaches by an elderly couple who couldn’t get over how the horses lay down ‘and died’ on order. Ah for those innocent days when movie-making was still magic. He’s a fascinating character, enjoyable post.

  21. Marvelous and informative post, Andrew. Thank you for sharing.

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