After a hiatus of several weeks, it is quite fun to be back writing a post. Not that today’s protagonists would label their experiences as particularly fun. Truth be told, our ladies of the day had an anything but pleasant experience—assuming what has made it down the centuries to us is true. After all, the actual events unfolded in the late 11th century, some decades after the Battle of Hastings. Not that our ladies would have heard of that battle. They lived in a land ravaged by war, by the constant ebb and flow of the continuous fight between Christians and Moors. I give you Spain—well, more precisely the recently conquered kingdom of Valencia. I give you a land smelling of heat, dust, of oranges ripening in the trees, of almonds and olives. I give you the sisters, Maria and Cristina Rodriguez.
Before we focus on our ladies, we need some background. In this case, the background is their daddy, Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar. Where Scotland has William Wallace and Switzerland has Wilhelm Tell, Spain has Rodrigo, more commonly known as El Cid. Some call him El Campeador (the champion). Whatever name you use, Rodrigo rises through the mists of time as a hero of Christianity. This is not an entirely correct depiction. Rodrigo was raised at the court of Castile and very soon proved himself invaluable to the king, Sancho II. Sancho was the son of Fernando I and he had two younger brothers, Alfonso and García. Where Fernando had ruled over the kingdoms of Castile, Leon and Galicia, upon his death the lands were split between the brothers. This did not please Sancho. First, he conspired with Alfonso, and together they turned on the youngest brother, García, effectively forcing him into exile and splitting his kingdom.
Then Sancho went after Alfonso, and leading the forces that defeated Alfonso, thereby forcing Alfonso into exile, was El Cid. Sancho was a happy camper. Alfonso was not. Once he’d defeated his brothers, Sancho decided to go after the lands his father had given his sisters. Let’s just say that Sancho was not a man who held much love for his siblings… By now, his siblings didn’t love him all that much either. His sister, Urraca, had no intention of surrendering her lands, and it is said she and Alfonso hatched a plan to rid the world of dear brother Sancho. While Sancho was besieging Urraca’s castle, a man begged for an audience with Sancho, claiming to have deserted from Urraca. No sooner were they in Sancho’s tent, but the “deserter” pulled a blade and murdered Sancho. Personally, I think he had it coming.
Suddenly, Alfonso was king of Castile. Not good news for our Rodrigo, because Alfonso was all too aware of who had led Sancho’s army. Still, El Cid was an excellent general, and Alfonso needed him, even if El Cid was demoted.
The final falling out between Alfonso and El Cid happened over an unauthorised campaign into the Kingdom of Granada. Plus, there seem to have been some issue with a share of the tribute from the taifa state of Sevilla not reaching Alfonso but instead ending up in Rodrigo’s treasure chests. (A taifa kingdom was “independent” but owed its overlord tribute. Taifa states such as Toledo and Seville were essentially Moorish and paid Alfonso substantial amounts to be left in peace) Alfonso leapt at the opportunity to exile Rodrigo, and in 1080 or so, El Cid was forced to leave Castile. He also had to leave his wife, Jimena, and their two daughters. For their safety, he had them taken to a monastery where they were to spend quite some time as guests of the abbot.
Fortunately for El Cid, he was still an impressive warrior. Soon enough, he found employment at the taifa state of Zaragoza. Suddenly, the champion of Christianity was leading Moorish armies, crushing one Christian army after the other—and being paid to do so. At the time, the Moorish states were divided, each one fighting their own battles against the Christian kingdoms. But in 1086, the Spanish Moors received reinforcements. The Almoravids from Morocco, led by Yusuf, landed in Gibraltar, and soon enough these fierce warriors managed to convince various taifas to join them. Alfonso was suddenly facing a huge army of infidels and in 1087 Alfonso’s forces suffered a serious defeat at the Battle of Sagrajas. What to do? Well, the obvious answer was to recall El Cid.
Was our Rodrigo delighted to be back? Not so much. Not only was he still on sufferance, but also Rodrigo had his eyes on a prize of his own. No longer content with just being a nobleman, he wanted to become a king, and to achieve this, Rodrigo was determined to conquer Valencia.
The long and the short of it was that he succeeded in his endeavour. His wife and daughters joined him and it was all happy days. El Cid was a hero in his own lifetime, and even Alfonso expressed his admiration, likely encouraged to do so by the generous gifts El Cid sent his way. Many were the nobles swarming round El Cid, and as the great man had two daughters, what better way to create a permanent bond than to marry one of the pretty damsels?
We do not know if Maria and Cristina were pretty, but in a time where marriage was more about increasing your net worth, it didn’t really matter how they looked. The important thing was who their father was—and that there was no brother. When El Cid died, everything he owned would therefore pass to his two girls. Quite a few noblemen licked their lips at the thought. Two who were more than eager were Fernando and Diego Gonzóles, Infantes of Carrión. Our young gents were of very, very noble lineage—at least according to themselves. While El Cid was a hero, his antecedents were somewhat obscure. If we were going to be brutally honest, El Cid was something of an upstart, having carved himself quite the nice living with his famous sword, Tizona. A glorified mercenary, really, but rich enough that Fernando and Diego were happy to slum it if it meant they could get their hands on all that money.
King Alfonso was all for Fernando and Diego marrying Maria and Cristina. With the king of Castile breathing down his neck, El Cid agreed, despite being less than impressed by the strutting Infantes. We have no idea what Maria and Cristina thought, but after several days of festivities the two young brides were wed to their eager grooms.
While obviously greedy and of impeccable lineage, Fernando and Diego lacked in other qualities, notably courage. According to legend, there was an incident with an escaped lion that had Fernando and Diego hiding under the bed while El Cid wrestled the lion to the ground and hauled it back to its cage. Then there was the matter of the approaching Almoravid army numbering 50 000.
“Umm…” said Fernando, “it’s not really our fight, is it?” El Cid just raised his brow, while his men openly taunted the Infantes for being lily-livered pansies. Did not go down well with Fernando and Diego, who felt their honour had been insulted.
In the event, Fernando and Diego did participate in what became a glorious victory. Not that it helped the less than loving relationship between them and their heroic father-in-law. I imagine the dislike spilled over into the relationship with their wives, whom they suddenly found too lowborn. “With our lineage, we should marry princesses,” they told each other, and thanks to the generous dowries that came with Maria and Cristina, they were now rich enough to pull a nice titled chick or two. Problem was that they were married, but this was but a minor impediment. Our ambitious Infantes came up with a plan, bid El Cid farewell, and departed with brides and dowries for their lands in Carrión. No sooner was Valencia far behind them, but our nefarious grooms set their plan in motion.
They led Maria and Cristina into the woods. Maybe the girls were hoping for some hot nookie in the shade. Instead, they were stripped naked, beaten senseless and tied to a tree, there to die of exposure. I am hoping that El Cid’s genes had made it down to his daughters making them capable of fighting for their lives, thereby leaving their unsavoury husbands covered in scratches and bitemarks. But the depiction that has tantalized artists is not that of two women fighting for their lives, it is that of two victimised women, abjectly awaiting their tragic fate. Huh.
In the event, help was already on the way. El Cid trusted Fernando and Diego about as far as he could throw them, which was why he’d asked his nephew, Félez, to tag along and keep an eye on his girls. When F arrived in Carrión and realised his cousins weren’t there, he backtracked. He scoured the woods, yelled himself hoarse calling their names and there, at last, he saw them. To his horror, he found Maria and Cristina covered in blood and bruises and nothing else.
“Revenge,” Maria hissed (No, she didn’t, not according to the legend which says that Félez found them unconscious, but I just can’t depict these ladies as being utter wimps) “I want them dead, maimed, castrated!”
“Too right,” Cristina managed to croak, despite her bloodied and swollen mouth.
To say that El Cid was incensed would be an understatement. The man was frothing at the mouth in his rage. The younger, more impulsive El Cid would have ridden straight for Carrión and killed his faithless sons-in-law. This somewhat wiser version turned to Alfonso, King of Castile, and demanded justice.
The king called for a trial. The marriages were annulled (which is quite interesting, seeing as this is the 11th century and marriages usually were for life according to the Holy Church) and El Cid demanded the dowry be returned. When it transpired the Infantes had already spent a sizeable chunk of the money, King Alfonso repaid El Cid, demanding that Carrión repay him (with interest, I imagine) over the coming years. Further to this, Fernando and Diego were challenged to single combat by two of El Cid’s loyal supporters. I am happy to report they lost, but unfortunately, they did not die. They were, however, stripped of their titles and exiled forever. I guess that sort of killed their hopes of marrying an appropriately high-born and titled lady…
So what happened to the (reasonably) traumatised Maria and Cristina? Well, the moment the marriages were annulled, El Cid was already scouting for new husbands for his precious daughters. One of them, Cristina, ended up married to a Prince of Aragón, while Maria was wed to the Count of Barcelona. I hope they were content with their new husbands, but then any male would be a major improvement on the false and evil Fernando and Diego!
As to El Cid, his end was fast approaching. The Moors had never reconciled themselves to losing Valencia, and around 1095 or so, they besieged Rodrigo’s city. Four years later, Rodrigo died, likely due to starvation after the extended siege. There his story could have ended, had it not been for his wife’s determination to inspire the Christian defenders to hold out a bit longer against the Moors. According to legend, she had Rodrigo clad in armour and hoisted him atop his famous horse, Babieca. Astride the stallion that had carried him from one battlefield to another, the very dead Rodrigo led a charge against the Moors. That skirmish the Christians won. The siege of Valencia, they lost. But the image of El Cid, mounted on Babieca and with Tizona in his hands, would serve like an inspiration to the Christians that came after to never, ever give up until the Moors were safely driven from Spanish land. Ironic, given that El Cid is a Moorish nickname given by impressed Saracen warriors to the general they called “the master”.