Hernán Cortés

Hernán Cortés bigraphy, stories - Spanish conquistador

Hernán Cortés : biography

1485 – 02 December 1547

Hernán Cortés de Monroy y Pizarro, 1st Marquis of the Valley of Oaxaca ( 1485 – December 2, 1547) was a Spanish Conquistador who led an expedition that caused the fall of the Aztec Empire and brought large portions of mainland Mexico under the rule of the King of Castile in the early 16th century. Cortés was part of the generation of Spanish colonizers that began the first phase of the Spanish colonization of the Americas.

Born in Medellín, Spain, to a family of lesser nobility, Cortés chose to pursue a livelihood in the New World. He went to Hispaniola and later to Cuba, where he received an encomienda and, for a short time, became alcalde (magistrate) of the second Spanish town founded on the island. In 1519, he was elected captain of the third expedition to the mainland, an expedition which he partly funded. His enmity with the Governor of Cuba, Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar, resulted in the recall of the expedition at the last moment, an order which Cortés ignored. Arriving on the continent, Cortés executed a successful strategy of allying with some indigenous people against others. He also used a native woman, Doña Marina, as an interpreter; she would later bear Cortés a son. When the Governor of Cuba sent emissaries to arrest Cortés, he fought them and won, using the extra troops as reinforcements. Cortés wrote letters directly to the king asking to be acknowledged for his successes instead of punished for mutiny. After he overthrew the Aztec Empire, Cortés was awarded the title of Marqués del Valle de Oaxaca, while the more prestigious title of Viceroy was given to a high-ranking nobleman, Antonio de Mendoza. In 1541 Cortés returned to Spain, where he died peacefully but embittered, six years later.

Because of the controversial undertakings of Cortés and the scarcity of reliable sources of information about him, it has become difficult to assert anything definitive about his personality and motivations. Early lionizing of the conquistadors did not encourage deep examination of Cortés. Later reconsideration of the conquistadors’ character in the context of modern anti-colonial sentiment also did little to expand understanding of Cortés as an individual. As a result of these historical trends, descriptions of Cortés tend to be simplistic, and either damning or idealizing.


While he is often now referred to as Hernán or Hernando Cortés (), in his time, he called himself Hernando or Fernando Cortés (). The names Hernán, Hernando, and Fernando are all equally correct. The latter two were most commonly used during his lifetime, but the former shortened form has become common in both the Spanish and English languages in modern times, and is the name by which many people know him today.For example, the English language version of his letters is called "Hernán Cortés: Letters from Mexico", etc. Although his paternal surname is sometimes spelled in the Anglo-Saxon world with a final "z" as Cortéz, this is incorrect. Cortéz is a Spanish surname, but in the official Spanish of Spain, the letters "z" and "s" represent different sounds, and the names also have different etymologies. Cortés’ family was distinct from the families using the spelling with "z", and he did not use this spelling.

Disputed interpretation of his life

There are relatively few sources to the early life of Cortés; his fame arose from his participation in the conquest of Mexico and it was only after this that people became interested in reading and writing about him.

Probably the best source is his letters to the king which he wrote during the campaign in Mexico, but they are written with the specific purpose of putting his efforts in a favourable light and so must be read critically. Another main source is the biography written by Cortés’s private chaplain Lopez de Gómara, which was written in Spain several years after the conquest. Gómara never set foot in the Americas and knew only what Cortés had told him, and he had an affinity for knightly romantic stories which he incorporated richly in the biography. The third major source is written as a reaction to what its author calls "the lies of Gomara", the eyewitness account written by the Conquistador Bernal Díaz del Castillo does not paint Cortés as a romantic hero but rather tries to emphasize that Cortés’s men should also be remembered as important participants in the undertakings in Mexico.