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Whatever Happened to Conquistador Hernán Cortés?

Updated on January 15, 2017
Hernán Cortés
Hernán Cortés

The name has entered the lexicon of immortality. It stands alongside Hitler's as one of the most notorious in history. A name that brought an empire to its knees and the death of hundreds of thousands, forever a face for greed and ruthlessness. The name is Cortés, and it belonged to the most notorious of the Spanish Conquistadors.

While his achievements and escapades are easily remembered, the man's final resting place is all but forgotten. In natural form of poetic justice, he is buried in an unremarkable tomb in an unremarkable church. Yet, Cortes's journey to obscurity is a remarkable one, involving nine exhumations and two trans-Atlantic trips.






The Man

While information about the man, his motivations, personality and character is scarce, we do know what he accomplished in South America. In a nutshell, Cortés exploits set in motion Spain's power, land and wealth in the New World. Employing a successful strategy of turning the indigenous peoples of South America against each other and brought the Aztec Empire to its knees. His expeditions brought much of what is now Mexico under Spanish control for the first time. Many of his actions were morally questionable, ignoring orders from the Governor of Cuba to return to Spain during his biggest conquests for example.

Between 1511 and 1523, he rose from a mere colonist to the Governor of New Spain, ultimately explored much of Central and South America and amassed a huge fortune. Yet the fall of the Cortes was absolute by the 1540s and he died in 1547, impoverished and hated.

The Body

Usually death brings a halt to the tales of a notorious name but for Cortes', it was just the beginning. In the 400 years since his death, Cortes' body would travel the globe, be the subject to government cover ups and citizen sympathy alike. Pretty remarkable story for a dead pillager of the people, yet an example of how nobody wants any association with him.

1547 -- Cortes' dies a broken man on December 2, in Castilleja de la Cuesta, Spain and his remains are entombed in a local church.

1566 -- Members of Cortes' family decide to relocate the conquistador's remains to Mexico. At the time, Mexico was still a colony of Spain. He was buried at The Temple de San Fransisco in Texcoco, Mexico.

1629 -- In the 63 years since his trans-atlantic journey from Spain, Cortes' body would move to the San Fransisco Convent and then again to Church of the Immaculate Conception and Jesus Nazareno.

1823 -- Mexican Independence brought a wave of nationalism and political uncertainty over the bones of the conquistador. Fears that they would be desecrated prompted Interior Minister Lucas Alaman to secretly hide the remains under a wooden beam at the Hospital de Jesus Nazareno in Mexico City. An interesting choice since it occupies the spot where Cortes and the emperor of the Aztec Empire met for the first time. In his will, Cortes has requested the hospital be built on the site in 1646. Lucas publicly announced that the remains had be moved to Italy.

1836 -- Lucas Alaman once again moved the bones of Cortes to a small niche beside the alter of the Purísima Concepción and Jesús Nazareno Church in Mexico City.

1843 -- Lucas Alaman files a burial act with the Spanish Embassy in Mexico to document the move to ensure the grave would not be forgotten. The embassy kept the document classified and sealed for the next century and a quarter as Mexico had largely chosen to forget the man and his name.


The 1946 examination of the bones of Herman Cortes'.
The 1946 examination of the bones of Herman Cortes'.

1946 -- The letter is released by the Spanish Embassy and interest in proving the authenticity of the bones reaches presidential level. The bones were exhumed and officially identified and those of Cortes'. Reactions were fixed, some called for the destruction of the bones, others their return to Spain. Ultimately it was chosen that the bones should be returned to the unremarkable crypt from whence they came.

1947 -- The bones of Herman Cortes' are reinterred in the same place beside the alter, bricked over, and a simple plaque is hung. It reads 'HERNAN CORTES 1485-1547'

Today -- The simple grave of Cortes' is all but forgotten. Nobody comes to visit and photographs in the church are not allowed. Obscurity best fits the plunderer of ages past. A punishment that he would have likely feared as all great men fear.

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