8 February 2021

Special Guest Post: The Fall of Kings: History vs Myth, by Stuart Rudge -Author of The Fall of Kings

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Castile. 1071AD. Three kings. One crown.

After Sancho II of Castile dispatches his champion Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar to capture his brother, King Garcia of Galicia, he hopes it is a defining moment in his quest to reunite the lands of his father under one banner. 

The Fall of Kings: History vs Myth

Today, I will be looking at the historical sources and those associated with the legendary Cid to define his role in the war between the sons of Fernando. Interpretation varies from source to source, and for a historian, it is important to validate their authenticity to sort out the fact and fiction regarding Spain’s most distinguished hero.

Sancho of Castile and Alfonso of Leon had clung on to an uneasy peace ever since they became kings after the death of their father. By the end of 1071, their younger brother Garcia had already been deposed as king of Galicia. A surviving document names Alfonso as King of Leon and Galicia, and Sancho as King of Castile and Galicia, at the same time, although it would prove difficult for Sancho to rule in Galicia, given that Alfonso’s domain lay directly between the two. 

As several Galician bishops serve as signatories on some of Alfonso’s charters from the end of 1071, it was likely only Alfonso who conquered Galicia, almost doubling the size of his domain in the process. Sancho would not allow Alfonso to sit comfortably on his possessions. The decisive clash came at a place called Golpejera in the Kingdom of Leon, at the beginning of January 1072, which would have made for hellish conditions for a battle. This suggests Sancho wanted to catch Alfonso without additional forces from Asturias and Galicia, as these would have taken some weeks to assemble. In the battle, Sancho defeated Alfonso and became king of Leon, Castile and Galicia.

El Cid, Champion of Castile
Source: https://www.deviantart.com/javieralcalde/art/El-Cid-Campeador-807284727

There has been much debate about the status which the Cid held under Sancho’s tenure as King of Castile, and later of Leon and Galicia. The Carmen Campidoctoris, literally translated as ‘Song of the Campeador’, claims that the Cid was at least the champion of Castile. From the poem comes the extract early in his life, ‘This was his first single combat, when as a young man he defeated the Navarrese champion; for this reason he was called campi doctor.’ Campi docti translates from Latin as ‘master of the field’, but likely in Medieval Spain at the time is similar to ‘armiger’, or arms bearer of the king. 

The Historia Roderici claims that wherever Sancho went and whichever battle he fought, Rodrigo bore the standard of the king, including at Lantadilla and Golpejera. When Sancho conquered Leon, it also claims he ‘rated him so highly…he made him the commander of his whole military following’. Some scholars argue against this, claiming the Cid would have been too young and too inexperienced to hold such a position, but if we are to believe the Cid had been a knight for nearly a decade and carried the king’s standard into battle, a high honour in itself, then why would Sancho not give one of his most distinguished men that honour?

Sancho experienced a troubled rule as king of all three domains, and by October 1072, it came to an abrupt end. In Bishop Pelayo’s Chronicon, he describes how Sancho ‘ruled for six years and was killed by treachery by a soldier named Vellito Ariulfo outside the walls of Zamora which he had besieged.’ The citizens of Zamora had risen in rebellion against their king, and the fact that Zamora was the city under siege suggests Urraca, Sancho and Alfonso’s elder sister, was the one who was the figurehead of the rebels. Urraca had inherited the city on her father’s death, and given that she was a regular signatory of Alfonso’s charters, it is highly likely the infanta still harboured loyalty to him and sought to help wrest control of the crown from Sancho. 

As to the circumstances of Sancho’s death, the most accepted tradition is that Vellito posed as a turncoat and offered to show Sancho a weak spot in the defences, only for him to assassinate the king ‘with a spear… unexpectedly, from behind,’ according to the Silense. The Cid was understandably grief-stricken; the Historia Roderici has him chase Vellito back to Zamora and, in an incident which may or may not have been connected, faced off against fifteen enemy knights, where he killed several and put the rest to flight. But no amount of killing could undo the death of his king. The Castilian army fell apart, and Sancho was laid to rest at the monastery of Oña, as was his wish. Only one man could take Sancho’s place as king.

The Death of Sancho II of Castile
Source: https://www.ileon.com/historia/101946/vellido-dolfos-el-heroe-leones-de-zamora-que-recupero-el-trono-del-gran-alfonso-vi

The final events of the year make for some of the most iconic in the story of the Cid, but also the most controversial. Alfonso made a swift return from Toledo and, once he had secured the thrones of Leon and Galicia, made for Burgos. In the Charlton Heston film, the Cid famously makes Alfonso swear he had no hand in Sancho’s death, even going so far as to slam the king’s hands upon a bible to add to the dramatic effect. This is based on an episode from an untrustworthy thirteenth-century source, most likely taking stock of the bad blood that would arise from the Cid and Alfonso in later years. 

From a historical point of view, it is highly unlikely the Cid would be so brazen as to go through with such an offensive act because to offend the new king so early in his reign would be to invite personal disaster. Some sort of hostility towards the new regime would be expected, but in fact, the Historia Roderici claims ‘King Alfonso received him with honour as his vassal and kept him in his entourage with very respectful affection.’ It was mutually beneficial for Alfonso to keep Sancho’s leading lords close to him, and for those lords, in turn, to submit peacefully to keep their possessions and standing in the kingdom. We even have the Cid’s signature on one of the first charters issued by Alfonso in Castile, further suggesting an amicable transfer of power.

El Cid forces Alfonso’s Oath
Source: https://nobility.org/2011/09/26/el-cids-story-living-legend/

Alfonso was now the sole ruler of a large kingdom, with members of all three districts in his court. Yet Rodrigo’s time in Alfonso would bring mixed fortunes. Whilst Alfonso recognised the champion of Castile’s service to his brother, Rodrigo did not enjoy the level of prestige he experienced in Sancho’s court. Furthermore, conspiracy and jealously would plague his service in the years to come.

Stuart Rudge

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About the Author

Stuart Rudge was born and raised in Middlesbrough, where he still lives. His love of history came from his father and uncle, both avid readers of history. By day, he works down the local dock, playing with shipping containers and trains. Rise of a Champion was the first piece of work he has dared to share with the world. He hopes to establish himself as a household name in the mould of Bernard Cornwell, Giles Kristian, Ben Kane and Matthew Harffy, amongst a host of his favourite writers. Find out more on Stuart's Website: https://stuartrudge.wordpress.com/ and follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @stu_rudge

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