In December of 1520, Hernan Cortes began his second march toward the Aztec capital city of Tenochtitlan. During his previous visit, he had entered the city in peace, but this time, he intended to seize the city by force. During the first months of 1521, Cortes and his coalition of conquistadors and Native American allies made a series of sporadic campaigns against cities and forts splayed around the marshy lake region in which Tenochtitlan was located. The Spaniards backed a new regime in Texcoco, a city that became a headquarters of sorts for Cortes as he planned his operations before moving on to the final push into Tenochtitlan. From the vicinity of Texcoco, he delegated his troops to achieve various tasks, such as ensuring that the Spanish supply line was clear, summoning more allied native forces to participate in the assault, and requisitioning supplies and ammunition from nearby allied villages and cities. With the siege looming and more native allies arriving to campaign alongside the Spaniards, Hernan Cortes reportedly set down a code of conduct that he wanted his Spanish troops to follow. The list of rules addressed Cortes’ greatest concerns—the preparedness of his countrymen for battle at any time, and measures to maintain a working relationship with his native allies.
Among Hernan Cortes’ officers was Bernal Díaz del Castillo, who wrote about the pre-siege code of conduct that was imposed on the conquistadors before the assault on Tenochtitlan was launched. In chapter 148 of his Conquest of New Spain, Bernal Díaz wrote eight instructions that Hernan Cortes reportedly drilled into his troops:
1—There was to be no tolerance of blasphemy among the Spaniards in Cortes’ army. They were on the eve of a great battle after all, and it was inadvisable to anger God before putting lives on the line.
2—Spaniards were to treat their native allies with respect and restraint. Infighting or otherwise causing allies to end their cooperation with the Spaniards would be detrimental to the campaign of besieging and capturing Tenochtitlan.
3—No Spaniard was to leave his designated camp or post without express permission or command from his officer.
4—All conquistadors were expected to wear all of their armor during all parts of the day, no matter what they happened to be doing at the time. They needed to be able to respond immediately and effectively to whatever the cornered Aztec capital city could throw their way in the upcoming days.
5—Gambling with armor, weapons and especially horses as stakes was prohibited on pain of great punishment for those caught disobeying this order.
6—In rule 4, Cortes ordered his troops to wear armor at all times. Rule 6, however, reminded his Spaniards that even while sleeping they were expected to be still fully armored and armed. Only severely sick or wounded conquistadors were allowed to shed some pieces of equipment.
7—As being prepared to fend off attacks at any moment was of utmost importance, any Spaniard found sleeping during his guard duty, or otherwise neglecting his job as a lookout, could face the penalty of execution.
8—As rule 3 ordered the Spaniards to remain at their camp or post at all times, rule 8 further tightened this command by prohibiting conquistadors from sneaking off to mingle with different camps led by commanding officers other than their own.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Illustration of Hernán Cortés from Cassell’s Illustrated Universal History, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons, Europeana and The British Library).
- The Conquest of New Spain by Bernal Díaz, translated by J. M. Cohen. New York: Penguin Books, 1963.