Death on a Pale Horse - the last Ride of El Cid

8 July 1099, Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar, known as “El Campeador” or, even better, as “El Cid” died during the siege of his city of Valencia.

“When it was midnight they took the body of the Cid, fastened to the saddle as it was, and placed it upon his horse Bavieca, and fastened the saddle well: and the body sate so upright and well that it seemed as if he was alive. And it had on painted hose of black and white, so cunningly painted that no man who saw them would have thought but that they were grieves and cuishes, unless he had laid his hand upon them; and they put on it a surcoat of green sendal, having his arms blazoned, thereon, and a helmet of parchment, which was cunningly painted that every one might have believed it to be iron: and his shield was hung round his neck, and they placed the sword Tizona in his hand; and they raised his arm, and fastened it up so subtilly that it was a marvel to see how upright he held the sword. And the Bishop Don Hieronymo went on one side of him, and the trusty Gil Diaz on the other, and he led the horse Bavieca, as the Cid had commanded him. And when all this had been made ready, they went out from Valencia at midnight, through the gate of Roseros, which is towards Castille. Pero Bermudez went first with the banner of the Cid, and with him five hundred knights who guarded it, all well appointed. And after these came all the baggage. Then came the body of the Cid with an hundred knights, all chosen men, and behind them Doña Ximena with all her company, and six hundred knights in the rear.” (Robert Southey, “The Chronicle of the Cid”)

El Cid on his last ride, as imagined by the  German history painter Philipp Foltz (1805 – 1877)

Born as a member of the Castilian lower nobility around 1040, Rodrigo quickly rose to fame due to his prowess as a fighter and military leader in service of King Sancho of Castile during the fratricidal wars with the other Christian kingdoms as well as the Muslim Almohad domains that raged across the Spanish Peninsula during the Middle Ages, earning the title “Campeador”, champion, by besting opponents in single combat.

After Sancho’s assassination and the succession of his brother Alfonso VI as King of Castile, Rodrigo was in a precarious position – legend claims that Sancho’s former Campeador even lead a group of nobles forcing the new monarch to swear upon oath that he was innocent of his brother’s murder. Whatever might have been the case, Alfonso VI had his own agenda and factionists who envied the fame and position of Rodrigo who continued to fight Alfonso’s battles until he lead an unauthorised raid into the Muslim domain of Granada and was promptly exiled by his angered king.

El Cid at the siege of Valencia in 1094

Rodrigo offered his services as a warlord to the Emirs of Zaragoza, fighting Christian and rival Muslim princes as successfully as he was before – probably earning his famous nom du guerre “El Cid”, from the Arabic word as sayyid or sidi, “Lord”, as the leader of his mixed Christian and Muslim warband. He was again a person to be reckoned with when the actually quite liberal and sophisticated Muslim rulers of Al Andalus called the orthodox Almoravid lords from North Africa to help them against their Christian rivals from the North – and immediately defeated King Alfonso decisively at Zallaqa in 1086.

A form of reconciliation between Alfonso and Rodrigo seems to have taken place, some sources tell the tale that the King recalled the Campeador back to his court to lead his armies against a different and far more aggressive Muslim opponent than the Almohads ever were. Rodrigo had his own plans though. Conquering the city of Valencia, actually one of Castile’s Muslim allies, he set up his own princedom and ruled more or less independently until his death five years later – allegedly with quite a heavy hand, especially against his Muslim subjects – the equally orthodox-minded Christian hardliners after the reforms of Cluny along with the arising spirit of the age of Crusades had taken hold of Valencia already during the 1080s at the expense of the more tolerant Mozarabic rite.

Marcos Giráldez de Acosta's imagination of the oath that El Cid (to the left with the long beard and the white surcoat) made King Alfonso swear (1864)

In 1099, the Almoravids began their attack on Valencia and put the city under siege. Rodrigo, in his late 50s or early 60s, died either from attrition or an arrow wound or both. According to his wishes, his beloved wife Jimena and his followers put his dead body on his charger Babieca and clad in armour, his sword Tizona in his hand, “El Cid” led his men one last time in a sally, dispersing the surprised enemy who thought him dead. Or so the legend claims – Valencia finally fell to the Almoravids, Jimena and the Cid’s body were evacuated before and both found their last rest in the city of Burgos.

The story of el Campeador Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar soon become the stuff of legend, especially through the heroic epic “Cantar de mio Cid” from the early 13th century, composed like other national epics by an unknown author, probably a cleric. The text of the Cantar makes up a good part of Spanish Medieval literature alone and was, after the rediscovery of the original manuscript late in the 18th century the fundament for the Cid becoming the Spanish national hero during the following troublesome years.