Cortés personally was not ungenerously rewarded, but he speedily complained of insufficient compensation to himself and his comrades. Thinking himself beyond reach of restraint, he disobeyed many of the orders of the Crown, and, what was more imprudent, said so in a letter to the emperor, dated October 15, 1524 (Ycazbalceta, "Documentos para la Historia de México", Mexico, 1858, I). In this letter Cortés, besides recalling in a rather abrupt manner that the conquest of Mexico was due to him alone, deliberately acknowledges his disobedience in terms which could not fail to create a most unfavourable impression.
Upon his arrival in 1504 in Santo Domingo, the capital of Hispaniola, the 18-year-old Cortés registered as a citizen; this entitled him to a building plot and land to farm. Soon afterward, Governor Nicolás de Ovando granted him an encomienda and appointed him as a notary of the town of Azua de Compostela. His next five years seemed to help establish him in the colony; in 1506, Cortés took part in the conquest of Hispaniola and Cuba. The expedition leader awarded him a large estate of land and Indian slaves for his efforts.
In 1511, Cortés accompanied Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar, an aide of the Governor of Hispaniola, in his expedition to conquer Cuba. Velázquez was appointed Governor of New Spain. At the age of 26, Cortés was made clerk to the treasurer with the responsibility of ensuring that the Crown received the quinto, or customary one fifth of the profits from the expedition.
Velázquez was so impressed with Cortés that he secured a high political position for him in the colony. He became secretary for Governor Velázquez. Cortés was twice appointed municipal magistrate (alcalde) of Santiago. In Cuba, Cortés became a man of substance with an encomienda to provide Indian labor for his mines and cattle. This new position of power also made him the new source of leadership, which opposing forces in the colony could then turn to. In 1514, Cortés led a group which demanded that more Indians be assigned to the settlers.
In 1518, Velázquez put Cortés in command of an expedition to explore and secure the interior of Mexico for colonization. At the last minute, due to the old argument between the two, Velázquez changed his mind and revoked Cortés's charter. He ignored the orders and, in an act of open mutiny, went anyway in February 1519. He stopped in Trinidad, Cuba, to hire more Soldiers and obtain more horses. Accompanied by about 11 ships, 500 men (including seasoned slaves), 13 horses, and a small number of cannon, Cortés landed on the Yucatan Peninsula in Mayan territory. There he encountered Geronimo de Aguilar, a Spanish Franciscan priest who had survived a shipwreck followed by a period in captivity with the Maya, before escaping. Aguilar had learned the Chontal Maya language and was able to translate for Cortés.
By the time he arrived in Tenochtitlan the Spaniards had a large army. On November 8, 1519, they were peacefully received by Moctezuma II. Moctezuma deliberately let Cortés enter the Aztec capital, the island city of Tenochtitlan, hoping to get to know their weaknesses better and to crush them later.
The Segunda Carta de Relacion, bearing the date of October 30, 1520, appeared in print at Seville in 1522. The third letter, dated May 15, 1522, appeared at Seville in 1523. The fourth, October 20, 1524, was printed at Toledo in 1525. The fifth, on the Honduras expedition, is contained in volume IV of the Documentos para la Historia de España. The important letter mentioned in the text has been published under the heading of Carta inédita de Cortés by Ycazbalceta. A great number of minor documents, either by Cortés or others, for or against him, are dispersed through the voluminous collection above cited and through the Colección de Documentos de Indias, as well as in the Documentos para la Historia de México of Ycazbalceta. There are a number of reprints and translations of Cortés's writings into various languages.
Cortés's fifth letter to King Charles attempts to justify his conduct, concludes with a bitter attack on "various and powerful rivals and enemies" who have "obscured the eyes of your Majesty". Charles, who was also Holy Roman Emperor, had little time for distant colonies (much of Charles's reign was taken up with wars with France, the German Protestants and the expanding Ottoman Empire), except insofar as they contributed to Finance his wars. In 1521, year of the Conquest, Charles was attending to matters in his German domains and Bishop Adrian of Utrecht functioned as regent in Spain.
He married twice: firstly in Cuba to Catalina Suárez Marcaida, who died at Coyoacán in 1522 without issue, and secondly in 1529 to doña Juana Ramírez de Arellano de Zúñiga, daughter of don Carlos Ramírez de Arellano, 2nd Count of Aguilar and wife the Countess doña Juana de Zúñiga, and had:
In 1523, the Crown (possibly influenced by Cortés's enemy, Bishop Fonseca), sent a military force under the command of Francisco de Garay to conquer and settle the northern part of Mexico, the region of Pánuco. This was another setback for Cortés who mentioned this in his fourth letter to the King in which he describes himself as the victim of a conspiracy by his archenemies Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar, Diego Columbus and Bishop Fonseca as well as Francisco Garay. The influence of Garay was effectively stopped by this appeal to the King who sent out a decree forbidding Garay to interfere in the politics of New Spain, causing him to give up without a fight.
From 1524 to 1526, Cortés headed an expedition to Honduras where he defeated Cristóbal de Olid, who had claimed Honduras as his own under the influence of the Governor of Cuba Diego Velázquez. Fearing that Cuauhtémoc might head an insurrection in Mexico, he brought him with him to Honduras. In a controversial move, Cuauhtémoc was executed during the journey. Raging over Olid's treason, Cortés issued a decree to arrest Velázquez, whom he was sure was behind Olid's treason. This, however, only served to further estrange the Crown of Castile and the Council of Indies, both of which were already beginning to feel anxious about Cortés's rising power.
A few days after Cortés's return from his expedition, Ponce de León suspended Cortés from his office of governor of New Spain. The Licentiate then fell ill and died shortly after his arrival, appointing Marcos de Aguilar as alcalde mayor. The aged Aguilar also became sick and appointed Alonso de Estrada governor, who was confirmed in his functions by a royal decree in August 1527. Cortés, suspected of poisoning them, refrained from taking over the government.
In 1528, Cortés returned to Spain to appeal to the justice of his master, Charles V. Juan Altamirano and Alonso Valiente stayed in Mexico and acted as Cortés' representatives during his absence. Cortés presented himself with great splendor before Charles V's court. By this time Charles had returned and Cortés forthrightly responded to his enemy's charges. Denying he had held back on gold due the crown, he showed that he had contributed more than the quinto (one-fifth) required. Indeed, he had spent lavishly to build the new capital of Mexico City on the ruins of the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán, leveled during the siege that brought down the Aztec empire.
He was received by Charles with every distinction, and decorated with the order of Santiago. In return for his efforts in expanding the still young Spanish Empire, Cortés was rewarded in 1529 by being accorded the noble title of don but more importantly named the "Marqués del Valle de Oaxaca" (Marquis of the Valley of Oaxaca and married the Spanish noblewoman Doña Juana Zúñiga, after the 1522 death of his much less distinguished first wife, Catalina Suárez. The noble title and senorial estate of the Marquesado was passed down to his descendants until 1811. The Oaxaca Valley was one of the wealthiest regions of New Spain, and Cortés had 23,000 vassals in 23 named encomiendas in perpetuity.
After reasserting his position and reestablishing some sort of order, Cortés retired to his estates at Cuernavaca, about 30 miles (48 km) south of Mexico City. There he concentrated on the building of his palace and on Pacific exploration. Remaining in Mexico between 1530 and 1541, Cortés quarreled with Nuño Beltrán de Guzmán and disputed the right to explore the territory that is today California with Antonio de Mendoza, the first viceroy.
Cortes acquired several silver mines in Zumpango del Rio in 1534. By the early 1540s, he owned 20 silver mines in Sultepec, 12 in Taxco, and 3 in Zacualpan. Earlier, Cortes had claimed the silver in the Tamazula area.
In 1536, Cortés explored the northwestern part of Mexico and discovered the Baja California Peninsula. Cortés also spent time exploring the Pacific coast of Mexico. The Gulf of California was originally named the Sea of Cortes by its discoverer Francisco de Ulloa in 1539. This was the last major expedition by Cortés.
The Emperor finally permitted Cortés to join him and his fleet commanded by Andrea Doria at the great expedition against Algiers in the Barbary Coast in 1541, which was then part of the Ottoman Empire and was used as a base by Hayreddin Barbarossa, a famous Turkish corsair and Admiral-in-Chief of the Ottoman Fleet. During this unfortunate campaign, which was his last, Cortés was almost drowned in a storm that hit his fleet while he was pursuing Barbarossa.
After his death, his body was moved more than eight times for several reasons. On December 4, 1547 he was buried in the mausoleum of the Duke of Medina in the church of San Isidoro del Campo, Sevilla. Three years later (1550) due to the space being required by the duke, his body was moved to the altar of Santa Catarina in the same church. In his testament, Cortés asked for his body to be buried in the monastery he had ordered to be built in Coyoacan in México, ten years after his death, but the monastery was never built. So in 1566, his body was sent to New Spain and buried in the church of "San Francisco de Texcoco", where his mother and one of his sisters were buried.
In Fray Bernardino de Sahagún's 1585 revision of the conquest narrative first codified as Book XII of the Florentine Codex, there are laudatory references to Cortés that do not appear in the earlier text from the indigenous perspective. Whereas Book XII of the Florentine Codex concludes with an account of Spaniards' search for gold, in Sahagún's 1585 revised account, he ends with praise of Cortés for requesting the Franciscans be sent to Mexico to convert the Indians.
In 1629, Don Pedro Cortés fourth "Marquez del Valle, his last male descendant, died, so the viceroy decided to move the bones of Cortés along with those of his descendant to the Franciscan church in México. This was delayed for nine years, while his body stayed in the main room of the palace of the viceroy. Eventually it was moved to the Sagrario of Franciscan church, where it stayed for 87 years. In 1716, it was moved to another place in the same church. In 1794, his bones were moved to the "Hospital de Jesus" (founded by Cortés), where a statue by Tolsá and a mausoleum were made. There was a public ceremony and all the churches in the city rang their bells.
In 1823, after the independence of México, it seemed imminent that his body would be desecrated, so the mausoleum was removed, the statue and the coat of arms were sent to Palermo, Sicily, to be protected by the Duke of Terranova. The bones were hidden, and everyone thought that they had been sent out of México. In 1836, his bones were moved to another place in the same building.
Cortés' personal account of the conquest of Mexico is narrated in his five letters addressed to Charles V. These five letters, the cartas de relación, are Cortés' only surviving writings. See "Letters and Dispatches of Cortés", translated by George Folsom (New York, 1843); Prescott's "Conquest of Mexico" (Boston, 1843); and Sir Arthur Helps's "Life of Hernando Cortes" (London, 1871).
It was not until November 24, 1946 that they were rediscovered, thanks to the discovery of a secret document by Lucas Alamán. His bones were put in charge of the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (INAH). The remains were authenticated by INAH. They were then restored to the same place, this time with a bronze inscription and his coat of arms. When the bones were first rediscovered, the supporters of the Hispanic tradition in Mexico were excited, but one supporter of an indigenist vision of Mexico "proposed that the remains be publicly burned in front of the statue of Cuauhtemoc, and the ashes flung into the air". Following the discovery and authentication of Cortés's remains, there was a discovery of what were described as the bones of Cuauhtémoc occurred, resulting in the so-called "battle of the bones". In 1981, when a copy of the bust by Tolsa was put in the church, there was a failed attempt to destroy his bones.
In 1981, President Lopez Portillo tried to bring Cortés to public recognition. First, he made public a copy of the bust of Cortés made by Manuel Tolsá in the Hospital de Jesús Nazareno with an official ceremony, but soon a nationalist group tried to destroy it, so it had to be taken out of the public. Today the copy of the bust is in the "Hospital de Jesús Nazareno" while the original is in Naples, Italy, in the Villa Pignatelli.
Later, another monument, known as "Monumento al Mestizaje" by Julián Martínez y M. Maldonado (1982) was commissioned by Mexican President José López Portillo to be put in the "Zócalo" (Main square) of Coyoacan, near the place of his country house, but it had to be removed to a little known park, the Jardín Xicoténcatl, Barrio de San Diego Churubusco, to quell protests. The statue depicts Cortés, Malinche and their son Martín.
Hernán Cortés is a character in the opera La Conquista (2005) by Italian Composer Lorenzo Ferrero, which depicts the major episodes of the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire in 1521.
Catalina Suárez died under mysterious circumstances the night of November 1–2, 1522. There were accusations at the time that Cortés had murdered his wife. There was an investigation into her death, interviewing a variety of household residents and others. The documentation of the investigation was published in the nineteenth century in Mexico and these archival documents were uncovered in the twentieth century. The death of Catalina Suárez produced a scandal and investigation, but Cortés was now free to marry someone of high status more appropriate to his wealth and power. In 1526, he built an imposing residence for himself, the Palace of Cortés in Cuernavaca, in a region close to the capital where he had extensive encomienda holdings. In 1529 he had been accorded the noble designation of don, but more importantly was given the noble title of Marquis of the Valley of Oaxaca and married the Spanish noblewoman Doña Juana de Zúñiga. The marriage produced three children, including another son, who was also named Martín. As the first-born legitimate son, Don Martín Cortés y Zúñiga was now Cortés' heir and succeeded him as holder of the title and estate of the Marquisate of the Valley of Oaxaca. Cortés's legitimate daughters were Doña Maria, Doña Catalina, and Doña Juana.