Hernán Cortés Biography

Hernán Cortés, the Spanish conqueror of Mexico, was a renowned soldier whose expeditions brought him land, power, and wealth. His audacious conquest of the Aztec empire led to the establishment of New Spain, or Mexico City, and Spanish rule over Mexico and Central America for nearly three centuries. Cortés is also credited with discovering the peninsula of California and played a significant role in the cocoa industry, establishing plantations across the Caribbean. Despite his initial success, his later years were marked by conflicts with the new viceroy of Mexico, leading to his downfall and a quest for recognition in the Spanish royal court.

Quick Facts

  • Also Known As: Hernando Cortés de Monroy y Pizarro Altamirano
  • Died At Age: 62
  • Family:
    • Spouse/Ex-: Catalina Suárez Marcaida, Juana Ramírez de Arellano de Zúñiga
    • Father: Martín Cortés de Monroy
    • Mother: Catalina Pizarro Altamirano
    • Children: 2nd Marquis of the Valley of Oaxaca, Catalina Cortés de Zúñiga, Catalina Pizarro, Juana Cortés de Zúñiga, Leonor Cortés Moctezuma, Luis Cortés, Luis Cortés y Ramírez de Arellano, María Cortés de Moctezuma, María Cortés de Zúñiga, Martín Cortés
  • Born Country: Spain
  • Soldiers
  • Explorers
  • Died on: December 2, 1547
  • Place of death: Castilleja de la Cuesta, Spain
  • Cause of Death: Pleurisy
  • Discoveries/Inventions: Chocolate

Childhood & Early Life

Hernan Cortes de Monroy y Pizarro was born in 1485 in Medellin, western Spain, to infantry captain Martin Cortes de Monroy and Catalina Pizarro Altamirano. At the age of 14, he was sent to the University of Salamanca to study Latin and make a career in law. However, he returned back two years later in 1501, due to lack of interest in studies. Being adventurous, he boarded the ship commanded by Alonso Quintero heading to Hispaniola, in 1504, where he was received by Governor Nicolas de Ovando upon reaching the capital city, Santo Domingo. He was given a small encomienda by Ovando and served as the notary of Azua de Compostela town. For the next five years, he learnt the workings of the colony and established himself in the settlement, making several allies.


In 1511, Hernán Cortés joined the expedition of Cuba under Diego Velasquez as a secretary rather than a soldier. He was recruited in the civil government and made a secretary of Velasquez, who became Governor of Cuba. He enjoyed promotions and senior positions in Santiago—the second largest city of Cuba—becoming municipal magistrate twice. He also served as the mayor Santiago for a while. In 1518, just before he was about to set sail for an expedition to Mexico, Velasquez canceled the commission; however, he ignored the orders and proceeded with 500 men, 11 vessels, 13 horses and some cannons. He reached the Mayan territory on the Mexican coast in February 1519 and befriended some natives, while fighting others to conquer Mexico. He headed towards Tabasco and won the battle against the natives, in March 1519. Soon after, he set his eyes on Tenochitilan, the Aztec capital, to overthrow its ruler, Montezuma II, and took him hostage a few months later. The Spanish colonists established a New Spain, naming it Mexico City, which served as the centre of Spanish America, with Cortes being made the governor, captain general and chief justice, in 1523, by King Charles I of Spain. His position and authority faced several challenges with his archenemies plotting against him. However, through his appeal to King Charles, he managed to keep his enemies at bay without getting involved in a war. He secured various opportunities to explore new areas in search of wealth and land, including his expedition to Honduras in 1524 defeating Cristobal de Olid, who was ruling Honduras under the orders of Velasquez. On returning to Mexico, he lost his position and traveled to Spain in 1528 to appeal justice from King Charles. Although he was not re-appointed governor, he was reinstated as captain general. Despite diminished authority, Hernán Cortés went back to Mexico in 1530 to continue his conquests through his military power. Since civil affairs was handled by a new viceroy, the division of powers led to failure of many of his expeditions. In 1541, he traveled back to Spain, where he was ignored and received a cold welcome from King Charles. On his last expedition, he accompanied Charles to Algiers and fell into neglect upon his return.

Major Works

Hernán Cortés was instrumental in the fall of Aztec Empire and in bringing large portions of mainland Mexico under the rule of Spain. In 1536, he set out to explore Central America in search of a gulf leading to the Pacific from the Atlantic. While he didn’t find any strait, he discovered the peninsula of Baja California.

Awards & Achievements

Hernán Cortés was honored with a crown bearing the coat of arms by King Charles, in 1525, as a mark of his successful conquest of Mexico. In 1529, he was conferred upon the designation of ‘don’ and was given the noble title of ‘Marques del Valle de Oaxaca’ (or Marquisate of the Valley of Oaxaca).

Personal Life & Legacy

Hernán Cortés befriended Governor Velasquez’s sister-in-law, Catalina Xuarez Marcaida and love blossomed between the two. He married her in 1518 with the intention of acquiring her as well as Velasquez’s wealth. The marriage ended with Catalina’s mysterious death in New Mexico, in 1522. His second marriage to Spanish nobelwoman, Dona Juana Ramirez de Arellano de Zuniga, in 1529 resulted in four offspring – son Don Martin Cortes y Zuniga and daughters Dona Maria, Dona Catalina and Dona Juana. Upon his arrival in Seville while traveling back to Mexico in 1547, he fell ill with dysentery and died on December 2, 1547 due to pleurisy, in Castilleja de la Cuesta, at the age of 62.

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