Biography of Hernando Cortez

A painting of Spanish conquistador Hernando Cortez, (1485-1547), circa 1500.
Kean Collection / Getty Images

Hernando Cortez was born in 1485 into a poor noble family and was educated at the University of Salamanca. He was an able and ambitious student that focused on a military career. With the stories of Christopher Columbus and the land across the Atlantic Ocean he became enamored with the idea of traveling to the territories of Spain in the new world. Cortez spent the next few years working as a minor legal official in Hispaniola before joining Diego Velazquez's expedition to conquer Cuba.

Conquering Cuba

In 1511 Velazquez’s conquered Cuba and was made governor of the island. Hernando Cortez was a capable officer and distinguished himself during the campaign. His efforts placed him in a favorable position with Velazquez and the governor made him clerk of the treasury. Cortez continued to distinguish himself and became a secretary to Governor Velazquez. During the next few years, he also became a capable administrator in his own right with responsibility for the second largest settlement on the island, the garrison town of Santiago.

Expedition to Mexico

In 1518, Governor Velazquez decided to give Hernando the coveted position of commander of the third expedition to Mexico. His charter gave him the authority to explore and secure the interior of Mexico for later colonization. However, the relationship between Cortez and Velazquez had chilled over a preceding couple of years. This was the result of the very common jealousy that existed between conquistadors in the new world. As ambitious men, they were continually jockeying for position and were concerned with anyone becoming a potential rival. Pedro de Alvarado, Francisco Pizarro, and Gonzalo de Sandoval were among the other conquistadors who helped to claim parts of the New World for Spain.

Despite marrying the sister-in-law of Governor Velazquez, Catalina Juarez the tension still existed. Interestingly, right before Cortez set sail his charter was revoked by Governor Velazquez. Cortez ignored the communication and left on the expedition anyway. Hernando Cortez used his skills as a diplomat to gain native allies and his military leadership to secure a foothold at Veracruz. He made this new town his base of operations. In a severe tactic to motivate his men, he burned the ships making it impossible for them to return to Hispaniola or Cuba. Cortez continued to use a combination of force and diplomacy to work his way toward the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan.

In 1519, Hernando Cortez entered the capital city with a mixed force of disgruntled Aztecs and his own men for a meeting with Montezuma II the emperor of the Aztecs. He was received as a guest of the emperor. However, the possible reasons for being received as guest vary wildly. Some have reported that Montezuma II allowed him into the capital to study his weakness with an eye to crushing the Spaniards later. While other reasons given relate to the Aztecs viewing Montezuma as an incarnation of their god Quetzalcoatl. Hernando Cortez, despite entering the city as a guest feared a trap and took Montezuma prisoner and began to rule the kingdom through him.

Meanwhile, Governor Velazquez sent another expedition to bring Hernando Cortes back under control. This forced Cortez to leave the capital to defeat this new threat. He was able to defeat the larger Spanish force and force the surviving soldiers to join his cause. While away the Aztec’s rebelled and forced Cortez to recapture the city. Cortez with the use of a bloody campaign and a siege lasting eight months was able to retake the capital. He renamed the capital to Mexico City and installed himself absolute ruler of the new province. Hernando Cortez had become a very powerful man in the new world. News of his accomplishments and power has reached Charles V of Spain. The intrigues of the court began to work against Cortez and Charles V was convinced that his valued conquistador in Mexico might set up his own kingdom.

Despite repeated assurances from Cortez, he was eventually forced to return to Spain and plead his case and ensure his loyalty. Hernando Cortez traveled with a valuable horde of treasure as gifts for the king to demonstrate his loyalty. Charles V was suitably impressed and decided that Cortez was indeed a loyal subject. Cortez was not awarded the valuable position of Governor of Mexico. He was actually given lower titles and land in the new world. Cortez returned to his estates outside Mexico City in 1530.

Final Years of Hernando Cortez

The next years of his life were spent quarreling over rights to explore new lands for the crown and legal troubles related to debts and abuses of power. He spent a significant portion of his own money to finance these expeditions. He explored the Baja peninsula of California and afterward made a second trip to Spain. By this time he had fallen out of favor in Spain again and could barely even gain an audience with the king of Spain. His legal troubles continued to plague him, and he died in Spain in 1547.

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Kelly, Martin. "Biography of Hernando Cortez." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Kelly, Martin. (2023, April 5). Biography of Hernando Cortez. Retrieved from Kelly, Martin. "Biography of Hernando Cortez." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 7, 2023).