Narrative Letter by Hernán Cortés


The name of Hernán Cortés (1485–1547) and the controversy surrounding him are linked to the conquest of Mexico, which was the most important event of his life. Cortés was born in Medellín, Spain. He studied at the University of Salamanca, took part in Spain’s conquest, in 1506, of Hispaniola and Cuba, and rose to become a municipal official in Cuba. In 1518, he took command of an expedition to secure the interior of Mexico. Cortés’s letters are an essential source for understanding the early Spanish presence in Mexico. He wrote five letters from New Spain to the king, in which he recounted, in a simple but detailed style, Spain’s progressive entry into new lands. The first letter, dated July 1519, has never been found. The second and third letters were published in Seville (in 1522 and 1523), and the fourth in Toledo in 1525. The fifth letter remained unpublished until 1842. Shown here is the second letter, from Segura de la Sierra, dated October 30, 1520. Written in good Castilian Spanish and containing much important information, the letter describes the province of Culua, with its great cities, especially “Tenustitlan” (Tenochtitlán) built on Lake Texcoco. Cortés speaks with great admiration about the Aztec king, Moctezuma (Montezuma), about how his people serve him, and about their rites and ceremonies. The letter relates the most noteworthy events concerning the entry into New Spain: the surrender of the chief of Cempoala, the procession towards the capital, the alliance with the Tlaxcaltecas, early contacts with the ambassadors of Moctezuma, and the meeting with the Aztec chief in Tenochtitlán. Finally, Cortés describes the destruction of the ships, the “night of sorrows” in which Cortés and his men fought their way out of the city, and the events leading up to his departure from the capital. Numerous editions of these letters—some rather early—were published in Antwerp, Nuremberg, Augsburg, and Venice, attesting to the interest generated in Europe by the events in the New World.

Date Created

Subject Date

Publication Information

Jacobo Cromberger, Seville


Title in Original Language

Carta de relación de Hernán Cortés

Type of Item

Physical Description

56 unnumbered pages, illustrated


  • Date of the printer's note taken from the colophon. Gothic letters. Initial letters are woodcuts. Illustrated woodcut before the title of Carlos V of Spain, who is sitting in a throne and with a scepter in his right hand, the entire illustration framed in an architectural cartouche.

Last updated: March 31, 2015