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Aztecs Attack the Spaniards on La Noche Triste (The Night of Sorrows): June 20, 1520

This text comes from our book, From Sea to Shining Sea.


Fear had filled the heart of the Aztec emperor Montezuma when he heard of the coming of the Spaniards.


The Aztec legends told of a god called Quetzalcoatl (kweh•zahl•coh•AH•tul), who had once ruled over men and taught them how to farm and to govern themselves. Quetzalcoatl’s rule, said the legends, was a period of great peace and happiness that ended when another god drove Quetzalcoatl from his kingdom, forcing him to flee eastward across the great Ocean Sea. The legends also said that Quetzalcoatl would one day return from over the sea, from the east, and that when he came, he would abolish human sacrifice and restore justice. Quetzalcoatl, it was said, looked very different from the dark-skinned, beardless Aztecs; according to legend, he had white skin, dark hair, and a flowing beard.


According to the reports Montezuma had received, the Spaniards had white skin and flowing beards and had sailed westward across the ocean on great winged vessels. Could the leader of these strange men, this Cortés, be Quetzalcoatl? After all, according to reports Montezuma had received, Cortés released prisoners held for human sacrifice in every village he entered. If Cortés were the god, Montezuma knew that he had to treat him with great respect. But if Cortés were not the god, he might be an invader against whom Montezuma would have to protect himself and his kingdom. The king was uncertain what he should do.


Pyramid of the Sun, Teotihuacan, Mexico
Pyramid of the Sun, Teotihuacan, Mexico

As Cortés and his small army came ever closer to Tenochtitlán, Montezuma sent messengers out to greet them. At one point, Montezuma changed his mind and ordered the Indians in the city of Cholula to destroy the Spaniards. Cortés discovered the plot, and beat the Indians back with great slaughter. Soon, Indian tribes—enemies of the Aztecs—joined Cortés. Montezuma decided that he had no choice but to welcome Cortés into the city of Tenochtitlán.


Montezuma was most gracious toward Cortés and his army, which consisted of about 400 Spaniards and about 6,500 Indian allies. With kingly hospitality, Montezuma allowed Cortés and his men to behold all the beauties of the city. Though the Spaniards admired the buildings and gardens of Tenochtitlán, the signs of human sacrifice in the temples appalled them. They thought the religion of the Aztecs was devil worship, indeed.


Though Montezuma was outwardly kind, Cortés feared him. Reports had reached Cortés from the coast (where he had left some of his men) that an Aztec chief had killed two Spaniards. Indian prisoners taken by the Spaniards laid the blame for the killings on Montezuma. Cortés, surrounded by his soldiers, appeared before Montezuma and asked why he had done this treacherous deed. Montezuma denied having anything to do with the killings. Not believing Montezuma, Cortés ordered his men to take the king prisoner. Cortés said he would hold Montezuma prisoner until the king punished the guilty chief.


Though he was Cortés’s prisoner, Montezuma still acted as king of Tenochtitlán. As king, he swore allegiance to King Charles I of Spain. (Fernando and Isabel had died and their grandson, Charles, now ruled their kingdoms.) Montezuma also divided up all his treasure among the Spaniards and allowed Cortés to turn one of the Aztec temples into a Catholic church.


A detail of the temple of Quetzalcoatl in Mexico
A detail of the temple of Quetzalcoatl in Mexico

But Cortés soon heard some disturbing news. Governor Velázquez had sent ships and soldiers to Mexico to capture Cortés and bring him to Cuba to stand trial for disobeying the governor’s commands when he sailed to Mexico. Cortés wasted no time. Gathering 70 men, he left the city of Tenochtitlán and marched to the coast where Velázquez’s army had landed. He left Pedro de Alvarado in command of the rest of the Spanish soldiers in the city.


With Cortés gone, Alvarado feared that the Aztecs would rise up and destroy his army. One night, unarmed Aztecs gathered to celebrate a religious festival. Fearing the Indians had come together to assault the Spaniards, Alvarado ordered an attack on the gathered Aztecs and killed many of them. Seeing the slaughter of their people, the Aztecs attacked the Spanish quarters. Then Montezuma appeared on the walls of the Spanish quarters and asked his people to cease their attack. The Aztecs obeyed, but they would not allow the Spaniards to leave their quarters.


Meanwhile, Cortés had not only defeated Velázquez’s men on the coast but persuaded them to join him! Cortés returned to the city of Tenochtitlán with more than 1,000 Spanish soldiers and 2,000 Indian allies. The Aztecs allowed him to enter the city; but as soon as Cortés joined his men, the Aztecs attacked the Spanish quarters. In the middle of a bloody battle, Montezuma again appeared on the walls of the Spanish quarters to beg his people to let the Spaniards leave the city. This time, the Aztecs only threw stones at their king, striking him several times. Montezuma was removed to his room, where he soon died.


Gathering his men around him, Cortés attacked the Aztecs. Capturing the great temple where so many men, women, and children had been sacrificed, the Spaniards tore down the bloody altar to the Aztec god. But Cortés knew that he could not remain in the city of Tenochtitlán. On the night of June 30 to July 1, 1520, the Spaniards left their quarters under cover of darkness.


Great dangers awaited Cortés and his men as they made their way through the streets of the city. Since Tenochtitlán was built in the middle of a lake, the Spaniards had to cross over a long, narrow land bridge to the opposite shore. While crossing this land bridge, the Spaniards could be surrounded and destroyed by Aztecs in canoes on the lake. If only the Spaniards and their Indian allies could escape the city unnoticed!


This was not to be. As the soldiers moved themselves along with their horses and cannon onto the land bridge, war drums sounded from the great temple in the city. The Aztecs had discovered their escape! Soon the Indians were attacking the Spaniards from all sides. Hundreds of Spaniards and their Indian allies died from the Aztec assault; the Indians captured others alive to sacrifice them to their war god. Despite the bitter assault, Cortés and his men moved on across the land bridge until they reached the far side. They called that night La Noche Triste, “the Night of Sorrows.”



A Concert of Music from 16th and 17th Century Spain


Some of this music may have been familiar to Cortés and his men. Performed by Hesperion XXI, directed by Jordi Savall.



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