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Cortés Conquers Tenochtitlán: August 13, 1521

This text comes from our book, Lands of Hope and Promise: A History of North America.


Defeat and the condition of his army did not discourage Cortés. No sooner had he entered Tlaxcala than he planned to return to Mexico. Fortune seemed to aid him. New soldiers sent by Velásquez to seize Cortés ended up joining him, and a shipload from the Canary Islands, carrying guns and artillery, arrived on the coast. Another unexpected ally struck the Aztecs — the smallpox. Having no immunity against the disease, they died in great num­bers. Among the dead was Montezuma’s successor, Cuitlahua, the king.


Cortés negotiates with the Tlaxcalan, a mural by Desiderio Hernandez Xochitiotzin in the Palacio de Gobierno, Tlaxcala de Xicohténcatl, Mexico

Before marching on Mexico, Cortés and his generals subjugated the surrounding tribes. Then, at Tlaxcala, Cortés ordered the construction of 15 small ships, called brigantines, to assault Tenochtitlán by water while the foot soldiers advanced along the causeways. Cortés’ total force numbered 818 Spaniards, including 87 cavalry, and 25,000 Indian auxiliaries.


On December 28, 1520, six months after la noche triste, the army began the march to Mexico. In a stirring speech, Cortés reminded his soldiers that the primary purpose of the war was the conversion of the Indians to the true God from the worship of demons; the second was to return the “rebellious” Aztecs to the service of the king of Spain. The Spaniards considered the Aztecs rebels, since their king, Montezuma, had sworn allegiance to King Carlos.


A battle between Cortés and the Aztecs, from the 16th century History of Tlaxcala

After crossing the mountains, Cortés’ army took Texcuco on December 31, 1520. From Texcuco, he sent contingents of his troops to subdue the cit­ies surrounding the lake of Mexico. The brigan­tines, which had been built at Tlaxcala and carried piece-by-piece over the mountains, they reassembled at Texcuco. Finally, on April 28, 1521, after the Spaniards had confessed their sins and heard Mass, the assault on Tenochtitlán began. As they launched the brigantines, the Spaniards broke forth in a joy­ous Te Deum.


The war on Tenochtitlán proved hard and bloody. In late May, the Spaniards blockaded the city by occupying three causeways over which the three divisions of the army, led severally by Cortés, Pedro de Alvarado, and Gonzalo de Sandoval, advanced on the city. The course of the war did not always favor the Spaniards. For several nights on end, Sandoval’s troops, who were camped less than a mile from the great teocalli, watched as the Aztecs led their cap­tured comrades, wearing plumed headdresses and holding ceremonial fans in their hands, drums beating solemnly, to the sacrifice.


“The Conquest of Tenochtitlán” by an unknown artist of the second half of the 17th century

The advance into the city was hindered, too, by Aztec attacks from the roofs of build­ings. To prevent these attacks, Cortés reluctantly commanded his men to destroy every building they encountered in their advance. Pushing into the city, the army saw the streets strewn with the bodies of those had died from famine. In the houses slated for destruc­tion, they discovered starving men, women, and children. Though Cortés commanded mercy for the wretches, the Tlaxcalans took revenge on their ancient enemies: they burnt the houses over the heads of the suffering. Cortés was powerless to restrain the vengeance of his Indian allies.


When, in their slow and arduous progress, Cortés’ army had reached the marketplace, seven-eighths of the city had been laid waste. Yet, despite all the destruction, and though his people suffered from famine, Guatemozin, the Aztec king, refused to surrender. On August 12, Cortés ordered a major assault on the Aztec position. The slaughter was hideous. “The piteous cries of the women and children,” wrote Cortés, “were enough to break one’s heart.”


On August 13, 1521, the Spaniards overwhelmed what remained of the Aztec defend­ers. Weakened by disease and famine, the Aztecs still resisted until one of Cortés’ brigan­tines captured Guatemozin, who, in a canoe, was seeking to escape across the lake. With Guatemozin’s capture, the Aztecs laid down their arms.


A Mass from the Court of Isabel


Juan de Anchieta (1462-1523) was a composer from the Basque region of Spain. His mother was the great-aunt of St. Ignatius de Loyola, the founder of the Society of Jesus. Anchieta served in the court chapel of Queen Isabel of Spain. We present here the Kyrie from one of his Masses, based on the plainchant Missa Rex Virginum. The Kyrie is interesting because it does not follow the typical Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison, Kyrie eleison pattern; rather it runs: Rex, Virginum amator, Deus, Mariae decus, eleison/ Christe, Deus de Patre, homo natus Maria Matre, eleison/ O Paraclite obumbrans corpus Mariae, eleison. (King, lover of Virgins, God, the splendor of Mary, have mercy on us/ Christ, God from the Father, man born of Mother Mary, have mercy on us/ O Comforter, o'ershadowing the body of Mary, have mercy on us.)