Hernan Cortes Was Almost Assassinated Just Before Leading His Final Conquest of Tenochtitlan

In late December, 1520, Hernan Cortes began his second march toward the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan. Leading an army of conquistadors and anti-Aztec native allies, Cortes spent the first months of 1521 orchestrating a string of campaigns against cities and fortifications that were adjacent to the Aztec capital. During this time, the Spaniards were able to prop up a supportive regime in the city of Texcoco, which became a headquarters of sorts during the planning phase for Hernan Cortes’ assault against Tenochtitlan.

After making his circuit around Tenochtitlan and ensuring a supply line was secure for his army, Cortes returned to Texcoco in order to prepare for the final push of his war against the Aztecs. Before the conquistador could launch his attack, two major obstacles arose that threatened his ambitions. One was intrigue among Cortes’ greatest native allies, the Tlaxcalans. As the story goes, a Tlaxcalan military leader named Xicotencatl (or Xicotenga) withdrew from Cortes’ coalition in hopes of returning to Tlaxcala to consolidate power there while the attention of his rivals was locked onto Tenochtitlan. Hernan Cortes had Xicotencatl hunted down and executed for the alleged opportunistic desertion—although, in fairness, Cortes may have simply considered Xicotencatl to be a threat and contrived this excuse as a way to have him killed. Nevertheless, after the execution or assassination of Xicotencatl, the cooperation of Cortes’ Tlaxcalan forces became more assured. Intrigue, however, was not exclusive to the Tlaxcalan leadership; among the group of Spaniards following Cortes, there was, by this time, a fairly developed conspiracy to assassinate the expedition leader.

Two days after the conquistadors returned to Texcoco, one or more of the conspirators had a change of heart and divulged the details of the plot to Cortes. Upon learning of the conspiracy, Hernan Cortes gathered his most loyal supporters, and with this trustworthy band, he set about crushing the plot. Backed by his posse, Cortes raided the quarters of Antonio de Villafana, who had been named by the informants as the ringleader of the conspiracy. The arrest could not have gone better—Antonio was captured without any issue, and plentiful documents were found that illustrated the membership and scope of the plot. Antonio de Villafana had apparently been a prolific writer, and in his quarters were letters and records that detailed how they planned to assassinate Hernan Cortes, as well as the new hierarchy they wished to set up after their captain’s death.

Bernal Díaz del Castillo, one of the people who helped Cortes arrest Antonio de Villafana, described the plot they uncovered:

“This was to be the manner of it. A ship having just arrived from Spain, one of the plotters was to bring to Cortes when he was dining with his captains at [a] table a heavily sealed letter purporting to come from Castile, and to say that it was from his father, Martin Cortes; and when he was reading it they were to stab him with daggers, together with any of us captains or soldiers who might try to protect him” (Conquest of New Spain, chapter 146).

Interestingly, despite having a treasure trove of conspiratorial documentation, Hernan Cortes let the brunt of punishment fall on the ringleader of the plot. Antonio de Villafana was reportedly hanged for his part in the conspiracy, but the rest of the plotters were set free after some intense interrogation.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (Hernan Cortes and Panfilo Narvaez depicted in the Historia de la conquista de Méjico, 1851, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).



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