Tag Archives: El Cid

Charlton Heston is El Cid

In March 2009 I visited the town of Belmonte in Castilla-la Mancha and visited the castle were some of the scenes for the film El Cid were shot.  On the way back down after visiting the castle I crossed the exact spot where Charlton Heston and Sophia Loren filmed the closing scenes of El Cid the film that was released on 14th December 1961.

El Cid is the national hero of Spain, a bit like our Queen Elizabeth I or Winston Churchill.  He was a warrior, a nobleman, a knight, and a champion.  He became a legend within only a few years of his death and most Spaniards know about him because at school they read an epic poem called El Cantar de Mío Cid.  It is the first great poem in the Spanish language and was written about 1140, only fifty years or so after he died.

Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar known as El Cid Campeador, was a Castilian nobleman, a gifted military leader and a diplomat who fought for and then fell out with Alfonso VI, was exiled but later returned, and in the fight against the Moors conquered and governed the city of Valencia on the eastern Mediterranean coast.

It’s a good story but the film takes a few historical liberties so, in truth it is best not to rely upon it as a source document for serious study.

The film is a Hollywood historical epic starring Charlton Heston and Sophia Loren and tells the story of the heroic warrior as he sets about (seemingly single-handedly) recovering Spain from the Moors.  With its charismatic stars, a cast of thousands (wearing real armour and using real swords) and its grand themes of love, loyalty and justice, it perpetuates a glowing image of the greatest hero in Spanish history.  Cid is a towering and talismanic figure, the perfect chivalric knight, devoted to his wife and children, a magnificent warrior, unerringly true to his word and merciful to his opponents.  Most of all, he is sworn to the service of God and dedicated to saving Spain from the fearsome invaders from North Africa.

The reality of course is that this wasn’t a completely accurate portrayal of the great warrior and the life of  ‘El Cid’, from the Arabic sayyid, ‘lord’, differed from the film version in many crucial respects.

charlton-heston--el-cid

One aspect of the film that is somewhat confusing is the relationship between the Cid and some of the Spanish Muslims who he holds in high regard and treats with respect and here we begin with an aspect of the film, which is, broadly speaking, accurate.  The Cid’s generosity to some of his Muslim opponents and his alliances with local Muslims against other, more fundamentalist, Islamic armies are based on fact because El Cid was a mercenary who would, in fact, fight for either side.

Three centuries before El Cid lived, the Muslims of North Africa had conquered Iberia but slowly the Christians had regained control of the northern half of the peninsula and the two faiths established a practical live and let live arrangement.  Relations between the two faiths in Spain had yet to be sharpened by the inflammatory and inflexible rhetoric of crusade and jihad and furthermore, it was quite common for local groups of Christians and Muslims to make alliances to fight other Christians and Muslims.  But things were changing and El Cid lived just as the age when the Crusades was beginning and the Christians probably had their eye on the bits of the peninsula with the very best beaches.

El Cid lived at this time and the film shows him having Muslim allies, even though it carefully omits the numerous occasions when he acted 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 and the  film accurately pays tribute to his formidable military prowess for which others were prepared to pay. His finest victory was the capture of Valencia in 1094, which is shown in the film on a grand Hollywood epic scale, complete with siege towers, cavalry charges and the full clash of medieval arms.

So there is at least some truth in the film and its plot, but it on the whole it is a highly romaticised version of the story.  The explanation for this lies in the identity of its historical consultant: 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.

The portrait of the Cid Pidal promoted to the movie makers was flawed in two ways.  First, in the evidence he used because he gave substantial credibility to the ‘Poema de Mio Cid’, a work written at the height of the crusading age and, crucially, fifty years after after the Cid’s death.  Then, his valiant deeds against 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.

The second reason for Pidal’s inaccurate characterisation of El Cid lies in the blurring between the historian’s version of medieval Iberia and many of his own perceptions about the Spain of his own lifetime. To him, the notion of a patriotic hero uniting his troubled country was highly attractive and one that fitted the nationalist mood of Spain in the 1930s.  Hence Heston’s El Cid repeatedly demands a victory ‘for Spain’, but in fact Spain as a national entity was of little relevance in the eleventh century and ‘for Castile’ would have been a much more likely rallying cry.

The end of the film is based entirely on legend.  Shortly before he died in 1099 he allegedly saw a vision of St. Peter, who told him that he should gain a victory over the Saracens after his death.  So he was clothed in a coat of mail and was mounted upon his favourite horse, Babieca,  fastened into the saddle and at midnight was borne out of the gate of Valencia accompanied by an army of a thousand knights.  They marched to where the Moorish king and his army was camped, and at daylight made a sudden attack. The Moors awoke and it seemed to them that there were as many as seventy thousand knights, all dressed in robes of pure white and at their head El Cid holding in his left hand a banner representing Reconquesta and in the other a fiercesome sword, La Tizona.  So afraid were the Moors that they fled to the sea, and twenty thousand of them were drowned as they tried to reach their ships.

El Cid and the Spanish Reconquista

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 his sword La Tizona

El Cid and Saint James

El Cid and Alfonso VI

El Cid and the Castle of Belmonte

St James the Patron Saint of Spain

In the calendar of the Roman Catholic Church November 1st is All Saints Day and a holiday in Argentina, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Chile, Croatia, Ecuador, Finland, France, Germany, Guatemala, Hungary, Italy, Lebanon, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Mauritius, Mexico, Peru, the Philippines, Poland, Portugal, Seychelles, Slovakia, Slovenia and Spain.

The national Saint of Spain is St James and if El Cid represents the secular aspects of heroism and military conquest during the Reconquista the spiritual hero representing the religious justification and the Christian ethos of the crusade against the Muslims was Santiago, St James the Apostle, and the patron Saint of Spain.

In ‘Don Quixote’ Cervantes wrote ‘St. James the Moorslayer, one of the most valiant saints and knights the world ever had … has been given by God to Spain for its patron and protection.’  Since the reconquest ‘Santiago y cierra España’, which means St James and strike for Spain has been the traditional battle cry of Spanish armies.

Santiago was one of the twelve disciples and a devout disciple of Christ but in 44 A.D. he became the first of Apostles to suffer martyrdom when Herod Agrippa I arrested and personally beheaded him in Jerusalem.   According to legend Santiago had preached for a while in Iberia prior to his execution and after his death his own disciples returned his body back to the peninsula. On the way they were caught in a storm and almost certainly doomed when a ship miraculously appeared, led by an angel, to guide them to land and safety.  They buried the saint near Compostela, ‘field of stars,’ where Santiago lay forgotten for nearly eight hundred years.

The tomb was conveniently rediscovered in the ninth century in a time of great need when Christian political and military fortunes in Spain were at their lowest ebb after they had suffered defeat time and again at the hands of the Muslims, until that is God revealed the Saint’s remains, and inspired them with the confidence that he was on their side, fighting in the battlefield with them through the heroic figure of Santiago.

The truth was that as the Northern Kingdoms began to assert themselves they needed spiritual assistance and justification and in this era of crusading reconquest there was a need for the living presence of a religious-national figure as an emblem of Christian strength and supremacy that was capable of rallying around themselves the Spanish Christian forces.   This was to be Santiago whose image fulfilled the desire of the Iberian Christians for heroes to emulate, and unite them in their struggle for political and religious independence from Muslim rule.

An important manifestation of the crusading mentality during this time was the creation of an iconic patriotic creation of Santiago and the mythical military contribution of St James to the Reconquista was the inspirational presence of the Saint on the battlefields of the peninsula.  The most famous of these was the legend surrounding the battle of Clavijo in 844, where the vastly outnumbered and demoralised Christian forces were inspired by the appearance of St James in a full suit of armour riding on a galloping white horse with a sword in the right hand and the banner of victory in the left.  Modern historians dispute that there ever was such a battle but the story goes that the night before the encounter, Santiago appeared in a dream to the leader of the Spanish forces, King Ramirez of Castile, and promised him a victory over the Muslims.  The following day, at the height of battle, the warrior-saint appeared on the battlefield, leaving behind him the defeated infidels that he has slaughtered and crushed to the ground and in front of him what remained of the terrified enemy promptly surrendered.  Thus was born the legend of Santiago Matamoros, the Moorslayer.

According to legend, the Saint came to the assistance of the Christians at least forty times in earthly warfare during the campaign and this became embodied in the assertion of faith in St. James and the patron saint’s pastoral care for Spain.  The Christian defenders created and developed the story of Santiago as the embodiment of God’s support who would sustain their courage and this strong faith identified Santiago with the religious element of the reconquest and the revival of Spanish fortunes.

By the end of the eleventh century (a period corresponding to the military contribution of El Cid) a decisively religious element had entered the issue of the Reconquista.   Santiago de Compostella became a place of great pilgrimage and after Jerusalem and Rome the third most holy city in Christendom.   The Cathedral of St James (which is depicted on Spanish eurocent coins) is the destination today, as it has been thoughout subsequent history, of the important ninth century medieval pilgrimage route, the Way of St. James.

By the twelfth century Santiago and El Cid became increasingly identified with one another as Christian heroes and the myths became inextricably intertwined as the story of the battle of Clavijo was first written down and recorded and theEl Poema del Cid was composed.   The Christians attributed identical symbols to them and their images merged in the artistic depictions of them both in the eleventh through to the thirteenth centuries.   This imagery was even recreated in the final scene of the film El Cid where shortly before he died he allegedly saw a vision of St. Peter, who told him that he should gain a victory over the Saracens after his death.   So he was clothed in a coat of mail and mounted upon his favourite white horse, Babieca, fastened into the saddle and went into battle accompanied by a thousand knights holding in his left hand a banner representing reconquest and in the other a fiercesome sword.

Through this process Santiago practically becomes El Cid, a heroic figure riding upon a horse, leading the Christians to victory.   The similarities in the depictions of these national religious heroes revolve around the use of four primary symbols: the sword, the banner of victory, the white horse, and the Muslims who lay dead at the feet of the victorious crusader.   The banner of victory, like the horse, is usually white because this colour symbolizes the spiritual purity of the Christians who will spill the red blood of the Muslim infidels.   The most important of these symbols is the instrument of death, the sword, generally attributed to gods, heroes of unconquerable might, and Christian martyrs and it signifies military might, power, authority, and justice.

The Cross of St. James includes the lower part fashioned as a sword blade making this a cross of a warrior and in crusading terms the symbol of taking up the sword in the name of Christ.   Most notably, it was the emblem of the twelfth-century military Order of Santiago, named after Saint James the Great.

These days we are a bit more sensitive about religious wars and killing each other in the name of God or Allah and in 2004 a statue in Santiago Cathedral showing St James slicing the heads off Moorish invaders was removed and replaced with a more benign image of him as a pilgrim to avoid causing offence to Muslims.   A Cathedral spokesman in a classic understatement said that the Baroque image of a sword-wielding St James cutting the heads off Moors was not a very sensitive or evangelical image that can be easily reconciled to the teachings of Christ.

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More posts about El Cid: 

El Cid and the Spanish Reconquista

El Cid and Alvar Fáñez de Minaya, another hero of the Reconquest

El Cid and his Horse, Babieca

El Cid and his Wife, Ximena

El Cid and his sword, La Tizona

El Cid and Alfonso VI:

El Cid and Belmonte

El Cid, the Film, Fact & Fiction

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The Legend of El Cid

“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 modern Spain has organised the interpretation of its 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 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 and 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 expansionist 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 a bit mixed, for some 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 many indigenous people fled north.  Throughout the occupation 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.

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 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 driving out 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 and diverse society.  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 out of Galicia 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 Reconquista came during this phase of the war and his finest victory was the capture of Valencia in 1094.

Aged 56, El Cid was shot by a stray arrow in a battle on July 10th 1099 and he died shortly afterwards.  After his death his wife Ximena ruled in his place for three years until the Almoravids once again besieged the city.  Unable to hold it, she abandoned Valencia and organised the evacuation of the Christians.  King Alfonso ordered the city to be destroyed to prevent it from falling into the hands of the Almoravids and what was left of Valencia was captured by Masdali on May 5th 1102 and would not become a Christian city again for over one hundred and twenty five years.  Ximena fled north with the Cid’s body to Burgos where he was originally he was buried in the monastery of San Pedro de Cardeña but his body now lies at the centre of the Burgos Cathedral.

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More posts about El Cid:

El Cid and Alvar Fáñez de Minaya, another hero of the Reconquest

El Cid and his Horse, Babieca

El Cid and his Wife, Ximena

El Cid and his sword, La Tizona

El Cid and Saint James

El Cid and Alfonso VI:

El Cid and Belmonte

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A Year in a Life – 14th December, El Cid The Film

In March 2009 I visited the town of Belmonte in Castilla-la Mancha and visited the castle were some of the scenes for the film El Cid were shot.  On the way back down after visiting the castle I crossed the exact spot where Charlton Heston and Sophia Loren filmed the closing scenes of El Cid the film that was released on 14th November 1961.

El Cid is the national hero of Spain, a bit like our Queen Elizabeth I or Winston Churchill.  He was a warrior, a nobleman, a knight, and a champion.  He became a legend within only a few years of his death and most Spaniards know about him because at school they read an epic poem called El Cantar de Mío Cid.  It is the first great poem in the Spanish language and was written about 1140, only fifty years or so after he died. 

Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar known as El Cid Campeador, was a Castilian nobleman, a gifted military leader and a diplomat who fought for and then fell out with Alfonso VI, was exiled but later returned, and in the fight against the Moors conquered and governed the city of Valencia on the eastern Mediterranean coast.

It’s a good story but the film takes a few historical liberties so, in truth it is best not to rely upon it as a source document for serious study.

The film is a Hollywood historical epic starring Charlton Heston and Sophia Loren and tells the story of the heroic warrior as he sets about (seemingly single-handedly) recovering Spain from the Moors.  With its charismatic stars, a cast of thousands (wearing real armour and using real swords) and its grand themes of love, loyalty and justice, it perpetuates a glowing image of the greatest hero in Spanish history.  Cid is a towering and talismanic figure, the perfect chivalric knight, devoted to his wife and children, a magnificent warrior, unerringly true to his word and merciful to his opponents.  Most of all, he is sworn to the service of God and dedicated to saving Spain from the fearsome invaders from North Africa.

The reality of course is that this wasn’t a completely accurate portrayal of the great warrior and the life of  ‘El Cid’, from the Arabic sayyid, ‘lord’, differed from the film version in many crucial respects.

One aspect of the film that is somewhat confusing is the relationship between the Cid and some of the Spanish Muslims who he holds in high regard and treats with respect and here we begin with an aspect of the film, which is, broadly speaking, accurate.  The Cid’s generosity to some of his Muslim opponents and his alliances with local Muslims against other, more fundamentalist, Islamic armies are based on fact because El Cid was a mercenary who would, in fact, fight for either side.

Three centuries before El Cid lived, the Muslims of North Africa had conquered Iberia but slowly the Christians had regained control of the northern half of the peninsula and the two faiths established a practical live and let live arrangement.  Relations between the two faiths in Spain had yet to be sharpened by the inflammatory and inflexible rhetoric of crusade and jihad and furthermore, it was quite common for local groups of Christians and Muslims to make alliances to fight other Christians and Muslims.  But things were changing and El Cid lived just as the age when the Crusades was beginning and the Christians probably had their eye on the bits of the peninsula with the very best beaches.

El Cid lived at this time and the film shows him having Muslim allies, even though it carefully omits the numerous occasions when he acted 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 and the  film accurately pays tribute to his formidable military prowess for which others were prepared to pay. His finest victory was the capture of Valencia in 1094, which is shown in the film on a grand Hollywood epic scale, complete with siege towers, cavalry charges and the full clash of medieval arms.

So there is at least some truth in the film and its plot, but it on the whole it is a highly romaticised version of the story.  The explanation for this lies in the identity of its historical consultant: 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.

The portrait of the Cid Pidal promoted to the movie makers was flawed in two ways.  First, in the evidence he used because he gave substantial credibility to the ‘Poema de Mio Cid’, a work written at the height of the crusading age and, crucially, fifty years after after the Cid’s death.  Then, his valiant deeds against 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.

The second reason for Pidal’s inaccurate characterisation of El Cid lies in the blurring between the historian’s version of medieval Iberia and many of his own perceptions about the Spain of his own lifetime. To him, the notion of a patriotic hero uniting his troubled country was highly attractive and one that fitted the nationalist mood of Spain in the 1930s.  Hence Heston’s El Cid repeatedly demands a victory ‘for Spain’, but in fact Spain as a national entity was of little relevance in the eleventh century and ‘for Castile’ would have been a much more likely rallying cry.

The end of the film is based entirely on legend.  Shortly before he died in 1099 he allegedly saw a vision of St. Peter, who told him that he should gain a victory over the Saracens after his death.  So he was clothed in a coat of mail and was mounted upon his favourite horse, Babieca,  fastened into the saddle and at midnight was borne out of the gate of Valencia accompanied by an army of a thousand knights.  They marched to where the Moorish king and his army was camped, and at daylight made a sudden attack. The Moors awoke and it seemed to them that there were as many as seventy thousand knights, all dressed in robes of pure white and at their head El Cid holding in his left hand a banner representing Reconquesta and in the other a fiercesome sword, La Tizona.  So afraid were the Moors that they fled to the sea, and twenty thousand of them were drowned as they tried to reach their ships.

El Cid and the Spanish Reconquista

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 his sword La Tizona

El Cid and Saint James

El Cid and Alfonso VI

El Cid and the Castle of Belmonte

A Life in a Year – 1st November, St James the Patron Saint of Spain

In the calendar of the Roman Catholic Church November 1st is All Saints Day and a holiday in Argentina, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Chile, Croatia, Ecuador, Finland, France, Germany, Guatemala, Hungary, Italy, Lebanon, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Mauritius, Mexico, Peru, the Philippines, Poland, Portugal, Seychelles, Slovakia, Slovenia and Spain.

The national Saint of Spain is St James and if El Cid represents the secular aspects of heroism and military conquest during the Reconquista the spiritual hero representing the religious justification and the Christian ethos of the crusade against the Muslims was Santiago, St James the Apostle, and the patron Saint of Spain.  In ‘Don Quixote’ Cervantes wrote ‘St. James the Moorslayer, one of the most valiant saints and knights the world ever had … has been given by God to Spain for its patron and protection.’  Since the reconquest ‘Santiago y cierra España’, which means St James and strike for Spain has been the traditional battle cry of Spanish armies.

Santiago was one of the twelve disciples and a devout disciple of Christ but in 44 A.D. he became the first of Apostles to suffer martyrdom when Herod Agrippa I arrested and personally beheaded him in Jerusalem.   According to legend Santiago had preached for a while in Iberia prior to his execution and after his death his own disciples returned his body back to the peninsula. On the way they were caught in a storm and almost certainly doomed when a ship miraculously appeared, led by an angel, to guide them to land and safety.  They buried the saint near Compostela, ‘field of stars,’ where Santiago lay forgotten for nearly eight hundred years.

The tomb was conveniently rediscovered in the ninth century in a time of great need when Christian political and military fortunes in Spain were at their lowest ebb after they had suffered defeat time and again at the hands of the Muslims, until that is God revealed the Saint’s remains, and inspired them with the confidence that he was on their side, fighting in the battlefield with them through the heroic figure of Santiago.

The truth was that as the Northern Kingdoms began to assert themselves they needed spiritual assistance and justification and in this era of crusading reconquest there was a need for the living presence of a religious-national figure as an emblem of Christian strength and supremacy that was capable of rallying around themselves the Spanish Christian forces.   This was to be Santiago whose image fulfilled the desire of the Iberian Christians for heroes to emulate, and unite them in their struggle for political and religious independence from Muslim rule.

An important manifestation of the crusading mentality during this time was the creation of an iconic patriotic creation of Santiago and the mythical military contribution of St James to the Reconquista was the inspirational presence of the Saint on the battlefields of the peninsula.  The most famous of these was the legend surrounding the battle of Clavijo in 844, where the vastly outnumbered and demoralised Christian forces were inspired by the appearance of St James in a full suit of armour riding on a galloping white horse with a sword in the right hand and the banner of victory in the left.  Modern historians dispute that there ever was such a battle but the story goes that the night before the encounter, Santiago appeared in a dream to the leader of the Spanish forces, King Ramirez of Castile, and promised him a victory over the Muslims.  The following day, at the height of battle, the warrior-saint appeared on the battlefield, leaving behind him the defeated infidels that he has slaughtered and crushed to the ground and in front of him what remained of the terrified enemy promptly surrendered.  Thus was born the legend of Santiago Matamoros, the Moorslayer.

According to legend, the Saint came to the assistance of the Christians at least forty times in earthly warfare during the campaign and this became embodied in the assertion of faith in St. James and the patron saint’s pastoral care for Spain.  The Christian defenders created and developed the story of Santiago as the embodiment of God’s support who would sustain their courage and this strong faith identified Santiago with the religious element of the reconquest and the revival of Spanish fortunes.

By the end of the eleventh century (a period corresponding to the military contribution of El Cid) a decisively religious element had entered the issue of the Reconquista.   Santiago de Compostella became a place of great pilgrimage and after Jerusalem and Rome the third most holy city in Christendom.   The Cathedral of St James (which is depicted on Spanish eurocent coins) is the destination today, as it has been thoughout subsequent history, of the important ninth century medieval pilgrimage route, the Way of St. James.

By the twelfth century Santiago and El Cid became increasingly identified with one another as Christian heroes and the myths became inextricably intertwined as the story of the battle of Clavijo was first written down and recorded and the El Poema del Cid was composed.   The Christians attributed identical symbols to them and their images merged in the artistic depictions of them both in the eleventh through to the thirteenth centuries.   This imagery was even recreated in the final scene of the film El Cid where shortly before he died he allegedly saw a vision of St. Peter, who told him that he should gain a victory over the Saracens after his death.   So he was clothed in a coat of mail and mounted upon his favourite white horse, Babieca, fastened into the saddle and went into battle accompanied by a thousand knights holding in his left hand a banner representing reconquest and in the other a fiercesome sword.

Through this process Santiago practically becomes El Cid, a heroic figure riding upon a horse, leading the Christians to victory.   The similarities in the depictions of these national religious heroes revolve around the use of four primary symbols: the sword, the banner of victory, the white horse, and the Muslims who lay dead at the feet of the victorious crusader.   The banner of victory, like the horse, is usually white because this colour symbolizes the spiritual purity of the Christians who will spill the red blood of the Muslim infidels.   The most important of these symbols is the instrument of death, the sword, generally attributed to gods, heroes of unconquerable might, and Christian martyrs and it signifies military might, power, authority, and justice. 

The Cross of St. James includes the lower part fashioned as a sword blade making this a cross of a warrior and in crusading terms the symbol of taking up the sword in the name of Christ.   Most notably, it was the emblem of the twelfth-century military Order of Santiago, named after Saint James the Great.

These days we are a bit more sensitive about religious wars and killing each other in the name of God or Allah and in 2004 a statue in Santiago Cathedral showing St James slicing the heads off Moorish invaders was removed and replaced with a more benign image of him as a pilgrim to avoid causing offence to Muslims.   A Cathedral spokesman in a classic understatement said that the Baroque image of a sword-wielding St James cutting the heads off Moors was not a very sensitive or evangelical image that can be easily reconciled to the teachings of Christ.

 El Cid and the Spanish Reconquista

El Cid and Alvar Fáñez de Minaya, another hero of the Reconquest

El Cid and his Horse, Babieca

El Cid and his Wife, Ximena

El Cid and his sword, La Tizona

El Cid and Alfonso VI:

El Cid and Belmonte

El Cid, the Film, Fact & Fiction

A Life in a Year – 10th July, The Legend of El Cid

The seven hundred year period between 722 and 1492 has long been known to historians of Spain as the ‘Reconquista’ and modern Spain has organised the interpretation of its 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 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 and 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 expansionist 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 a bit mixed, for some 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 many indigenous people fled north.  Throughout the occupation 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.

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 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 driving out 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 and diverse society.  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 out of Galicia 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 Reconquista came during this phase of the war and his finest victory was the capture of Valencia in 1094.

Aged 56, El Cid was shot by a stray arrow in a battle on July 10th 1099 and he died shortly afterwards.  After his death his wife Ximena ruled in his place for three years until the Almoravids once again besieged the city.  Unable to hold it, she abandoned Valencia and organised the evacuation of the Christians.  King Alfonso ordered the city to be destroyed to prevent it from falling into the hands of the Almoravids and what was left of Valencia was captured by Masdali on May 5th 1102 and would not become a Christian city again for over one hundred and twenty five years.  Ximena fled north with the Cid’s body to Burgos where he was originally he was buried in the monastery of San Pedro de Cardeña but his body now lies at the centre of the Burgos Cathedral.

 El Cid and Alvar Fáñez de Minaya, another hero of the Reconquest

El Cid and his Horse, Babieca

El Cid and his Wife, Ximena

El Cid and his sword, La Tizona

El Cid and Saint James

El Cid and Alfonso VI:

El Cid and Belmonte