The Many Burials of Hernan Cortes: Locating the Gravesite of a Conquistador
Hernán Cortés was a Spanish conquistador who was instrumental in the fall of the Aztec Empire. After death, his body was buried in Seville, but later it was re-buried many times, in some cases to protect it from those who were angered by his brutal treatment of the indigenous people of Mexico. Over the centuries, the location of his real tomb became lost to the pages of history, only to be rediscovered again in 1946.
The Rise of Hernán Cortés
Hernán Cortés de Monroy y Pizarro was born in 1485 in Medellin in Spain, and became part of the first group of Spanish colonizers in the Americas.
His family belonged to the lesser nobility of the time. He began his life in the New World in Hispaniola (located in the Caribbean island group). Later Cortés went to Cuba, where he became magistrate of the second Spanish town founded on the island.
In 1519, he was elected as a 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.
Arrival of Cortés in Tenochtitlan/ Cortés and La Malinche meet Moctezuma II, November 8, 1519. ( Public Domain )
It was an order which Cortés completely ignored and he went on to overthrow the Aztec Empire. During his expedition, he ordered numerous atrocities against the Aztecs: the death of innocent people, the destruction of ancient sites, and the looting of as much gold as possible. For these despicable actions, Cortés was awarded the title of Marqués Del Valle de Oaxaca. He went on to become one of the most important people in history of colonization of Mexico. In 1541, Cortés returned to Spain, where six years later he died peacefully.
Entrance into Guadalajara, Jalisco. The Tlaxcalans are carrying their traditional obsidian-tipped war clubs. ( Public Domain )
The Death and Burial of Cortés
Hernán Cortés died on December 2, 1547, from a case of pleurisy at the age of 62. His dramatic life ended in Castilleja de la Cuesta, Sevilla, Spain. In his will, Cortés asked for his body to be buried in a monastery built to his order in Coyoacan, Mexico (currently Mexico City). This monastery wasn’t built, so his wishes were ignored and he was buried two days later in the mausoleum of the Duke of Medina in the church of San Isidoro Del Campo in Seville.
It seemed that he would stay there forever, but three years later, his body was moved to the altar of Santa Catarina in the same church. This move took place because it was necessary to prepare more space for a duke. Six years later, in 1556, his body was moved again. This time it crossed the Atlantic Ocean to be buried in the church of San Francisco de Texcoco (nowadays, also a part of Mexico City).
An engraving of a middle aged Cortés by 19th-century artist William Holl. ( Public Domain )
When in 1629, Don Pedro Cortés the fourth Marquez Del Valle (and the last male descendant of Cortés) died, the viceroy decided to move the bones of Hernán Cortés yet again. Due to this decision, Hernán Cortés’ remains were exhumed and prepared to be reburied in the Sagrario of a Franciscan church.
Nine years passed between the exhumation of the body and the reburial. During this time, his body stayed in the main room of the palace of the viceroy. After a funeral in the Franciscan church, Cortés body stayed there for 156 years. However, in 1794, his bones were moved to the “Hospital de Jesus”, which was founded by Cortés.
The Secret Grave
At the beginning of the 19 th century, Cortés became one of the most important symbols of tragedy and anger for native tribes of Mexico when they began their fight for independence. Thus, in 1823, Lucas Alaman, who served as interior and foreign minister, came up with a plan to keep the tomb from falling into the wrong hands or being destroyed. After the independence of Mexico, the mausoleum was removed.
The statue and the coat of arms of Cortés were sent to Palermo in Sicily. The bones stayed hidden, but this ruse was meant to make people believe that they had been sent out of the country as well. In fact, Alaman had hidden them under a wooden beam at the Hospital de Jesús Nazareno in Mexico City. This location was significant during Cortés life as it was supposedly the spot where Cortés and the Aztec king Montezuma II met for the first time in 1519.
Nonetheless, this was not the end to the exhumation and reburial of Cortés body. About 13 years later, the remains were reburied in another place - behind a wall at the adjacent Purísima Concepción and Jesús Nazareno Church.
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Plaque marking the location of the encounter of Mocetezuma Xocoyotzin and the Spanish Conquistador Hernán Cortés on November 8, 1519. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Alaman’s movements were a secret between him and the Spanish Embassy in Mexico City until 1843, but after this date there are no documents proving the location of Cortés remains. Between the 19th and the 20th centuries, people thought that the tomb of the conquistador disappeared for good. Many believed that the bones were lost forever or the grave was looted.
The Remains of Cortés Rediscovered
Mexico had broken relations with the Franco nationalist government in 1939, but in 1946 a top Spanish Republican government official (who was in exile in Mexico City and in charge of the embassy) released the documentation by Lucas Alaman discussing his movement of the conquistador’s bones.
With this new information, the tomb of Hernán Cortés was rediscovered on November 24, 1946. The bones of Cortés were then put in the hands of the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (INAH). On November 28, 1946 Cortés’s remains were officially identified.
Following the identification, the bones of Cortés were placed back behind the wall left of the altar at Purísima Concepción and Jesús Nazareno Church in 1947. Nowadays the church is located on a busy avenue in the old part of the city. Inside the building, the tomb is not very noticeable. But there is a plaque with a coat of arms and the words ‘Hernán Cortés 1485 -1547’ placed in front of the grave.
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Church of Jesus Nazareno, Mexico City, Mexico. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )
For many years, Cortés was a man that people have wanted to forget. They didn't want to speak of him or remember his existence. Nowadays, there is still much debate about his existence as a hero for the Spanish or a villain for the Mexicans. Nevertheless, his bones stay safe in what may be his final resting place - in the land where he wanted to remain.
Featured image: Hernán Cortés Monroy, with his coat of arms on the upper left corner. Painting reproduced in the book America, (R. Cronau 19th century). ( Public Domain )
Buddy Levy, Conquistador: Hernan Cortes, King Montezuma, and the Last Stand of the Aztecs , 2008
Christian Duverger, Cortes , 2001
Hugh Thomas, Conquest : Cortres, Montezuma, and the Fall of Old Mexico, 1993
José Luis Martínez, Hernan Cortes , 1990
Those Conquistadors and the churchmen who sailed with them were bad news. Some historians say it wasn't western diseases which killed so many indigenous people because they had those diseases too. Most died at the hands of brutal soldiers who killed for treasure, while the equally brutal church killed many more "to save the souls of heathens who wouldn't convert". Anything else is rewriting history.