As you may know, I’m working on a historical novel about the life of Queen Urraca I of Castilla-León, who reigned from 1109 to 1126. (You can read Chapter 1 here.) Her father was Alfonso VI, and one of his knights, for a time, was Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar, also known as El Cid. I have a whole shelf of reference material about that particular moment in Spanish history.
What do I think of El Cid, the Spanish TV show on Amazon Prime about the epic of his life? Visually, way cool. Historically, a little shaky. Dramatically, risk-averse. Consider the first episode.
What’s true (spoiler alert):
Rodrigo’s maternal grandfather was a fairly powerful count.
Rodrigo arrived at the court of King Fernando I without much status and rose to become a knight for his son Sancho — and eventually, as an independent warlord, Rodrigo conquered Valencia.
He married Jimena, but more than ten years after Episode One. There’s no evidence they knew each other beforehand, and since she was of quite royal blood, their paths might not have crossed much.
What’s not true:
Jousts of the type shown in the episode were not practiced in the 11th century in Spain or anywhere else.
Fireplaces had not come into use in Europe. Also, León had a public bath, so there was no need to bathe in a tub in the castle. The royal family had a manorial home in León, not a castle. And the castles of the time in Spain weren’t as big and nice as they seem to be in the show.
Royal clothing was far more sumptuous than we generally imagine. Alfonso VI had a tunic made out of spun gold! That’s all I’ll say about the costuming, but I could go on. And on.
The King’s daughter Urraca (aunt of Queen Urraca I) was famously strong-willed, but not for the cheap sexy way she’s depicted on the show.
Rodrigo’s father is not known to have fought in the Battle of Atapuerca or anywhere else; nothing much is known about his father. But anyone who played a key role in that well-chronicled battle would likely have been remembered.
At the same time that King Fernando was getting some nice tribute money from the Muslim taifas, he also carried out a vigorous and successful campaign of conquest. Not for nothing was he called “the Great.” In fact, he earned the title of emperor. The nobles of León were always restive for various reasons, some of them reasonable, but they likely had no complaints about his policies on tributes (parias) and conquest, since he managed plenty of both. There’s no record of a revolt or assassination attempt by the nobles — or by his wife.
Finally, it is unforgivably TV stupid for a potential assassin of the King to be able to climb up the scaffolding beneath the royal bleachers, have a big, long, athletic fight with Rodrigo, get killed — and no one notices! All sorts of people would have been roaming around behind the bleachers doing whatnot, and at least one of them would have been a guard.
It’s fun to watch, but don’t believe everything you see. This is TV, not history. I believe that’s truly sad because the real history is enthralling. The show’s writers have sold their souls to tired melodramatic tropes. It seems they cannot understand, much less appreciate, the depth and breadth of the actual drama of the time, questions of statecraft, honor, and purpose. It was so much bigger and better than petty pointless personal vendettas.
My next novel, Immunity Index, goes on sale May 4.