The early years of Hernán Cortés are largely unknown, but the details that do exist help to shed some light upon the character of Cortés the Conquistador.
The complete Hernán Cortés biography is a spectacular mix of warfare, politics, gold and conquest. The early life of Hernán Cortés, however, is a largely undocumented period. Little is known of his childhood, or his teenage years, until his arrival in the New World.
Hernán Cortés Biography – Birth and Family
Hernán Cortés (or Hernando Cortés) was born in 1485 in the village of Medellín in the province of Extremadura, Spain. His father, Martín Cortés de Monroy, was a captain of infantry. It was through his mother, Catalina Pizarro Altamirano, that Cortés was linked to Francisco Pizarro (as second cousin), the future conqueror of the Inca Empire. Cortés’ parents were of noble lineage yet did not possess any great wealth.
Early Childhood of Hernán Cortés
According to Cortés’ friend and biographer, Francisco López de Gómara, Cortés was, as an infant, “so frail that many times he was on the point of dying”. During this time, Cortés was cared for by his wet nurse, María de Esteban. Little more is known of Cortés’ family upbringing or his relationship with his parents before he left home to begin his education.
The Education of Hernán Cortés
Both Gómara and historian Joaquín Telesforo de Trueba y Cosío state that Cortés was seen as an exceptionally bright child by his parents. The latter relates that the young Cortés possessed “A natural quickness and sagacity, a certain degree of eloquence, and a prudent reserve superior to the years of youth”. Seeing this in his son, Cortés’ military-minded father decided that a potentially lucrative law career would be a fitting role for his child.
With this in mind, the fourteen-year-old Cortés was sent to study at the University of Salamanca, one of Spain’s most notable centers of learning. Cortés stayed at the university for two years before deciding, of his own accord, to give up his studies. He returned to Medellín “either disgusted with school life or having changed his mind or, perhaps, from lack of money” (according to Gómara).
It would appear that Cortés was not suited to formal education; his ability does not seem to be in question, but rather a restless streak that saw him tire of university life.
Hernán Cortés Returns to Medellín
On his return to Medellín, Cortés found his parents less than pleased about his failure to complete his studies. He occupied his time in Medellín with the practice of horsemanship, weapons handling and field sports. However, according to Gómara, Cortés proved to be “a source of trouble to his parents as well as to himself, for he was restless, haughty, mischievous, and given to quarreling, for which reason he decided to seek his fortune”.
The Young Hernán Cortés – Women, Recklessness & the New World
Two options became open to the young Hernán Cortés: he could go to Naples to fight under the command of Gonzalo Fernández de Córdoba, “The Great Captain”, or he could sail to the New World with a distant relative, Nicolás de Ovando y Cáceres. Ovando was being sent to the Americas to take up position as the new governor of Hispaniola.
Cortés chose to go with Ovando. His connection with the soon-to-be governor would help him establish himself upon arrival, and stories about the riches being discovered in the New World were flooding into Spain on a daily basis. However, as Ovando was making the final preparations for departure, the reckless Cortés let his fondness for women (a recurrent trait) get the better of him.
Cortés injured himself one night while hurriedly exiting the bedroom of a young and very much married woman. The garden wall, upon which he was escaping, collapsed beneath him, both injuring Cortés and alerting the woman’s husband. The man tried to kill Cortés but, according to Gómara, was prevented from doing so by his old mother-in-law.
The Birth of Cortés the Conquistador
Due to his injuries, Cortés missed the opportunity to sail with Ovando. Instead, he wandered idly about Spain for almost a year, quite probably indulging in his favorite pastimes of getting into trouble and getting into bed with attractive young women. However, Cortés was a hugely motivated young man, a fact reflected throughout his later life. Returning once again to Medellín, he set his sights upon the Americas once more.
In 1504, the young Hernán Cortés (he was still only nineteen) took passage on a ship destined for the New World. The ship, owned by Alonso Quintero, arrived in Hispaniola later that year. Cortés registered as a citizen and received the land that each colonist was entitled to. In 1506, Cortés took part in the conquest of Hispaniola and Cuba, establishing himself within the new colonies of Spain. The Cortés expedition of 1519, meanwhile, would prove to be one of the greatest military campaigns of all time.