The Debt Hernán Cortés Never Paid

Due to the judges' claimed favoritism for Hernán Cortés, Francisco de Hermosilla was unable to collect the money the conquist owed his family. Learn more about the history of Hospital de Jess and the conflict it was a part of.

The Debt Hernán Cortés Never Paid
Engraving. Fragment of a tribute registration of the town of Hueyotlipan. Credit: AGN, Graphic Archives, Felipe Teixidor Collection, FTX. 148

The judges' alleged preference for Hernán Cortés prevented Francisco de Hermosilla from collecting the money the conquistador owed his family. Delve into the background of Hospital de Jesús and learn more about this conflict.

Hernán Cortés was the Spanish conquistador who led the expedition that ended the dominion of the Crown of Castile over the Mexica empire. As a result of this, King Carlos I gave him the title of Marquis of the Valley of Oaxaca. This was not what he wanted, because he wanted to be a viceroy, which was the most important job. Instead, the position of viceroy went to the nobleman Antonio de Mendoza y Pacheco.

Despite this, the Marquisate of Cortés was one of the most prosperous and extensive in New Spain, as it covered several territories now occupied by the states of Oaxaca, Veracruz, Michoacán, the State of Mexico, Mexico City, and Morelos. In what is now this last entity, the dispossessed peoples developed resistance against Cortés using the elaboration of codices that served as the legal defense of their territory.

This information is stored in the General Archive of the Nation in the Hospital de Jesús collection, a primary source of the administration, grants, and privileges obtained by Hernán Cortés from the Spanish Crown. Within this file, the process that Francisco de Hermosilla initiated on behalf of his father, Rodrigo de Hermosilla, who made a loan of 500 ducats of gold to the Marquis del Valle but was forced to ask for the payment of the said debt, stands out.

This commitment was recorded in a certificate dated March 9, 1530, where he mentions the reason and the promise to pay it off once he no longer had the need. Unfortunately, as the years passed, the debt was not paid, and Hernán Cortés returned to the city of Seville, Spain, where he spent his last days until he died in 1547.

Both the outstanding payment and his marquisate were not extinguished by his death, as they were inherited by his only legitimate son. Cortés married twice but had a reputation as a womanizer; he had 11 children with six different women, of whom only four reached adulthood, including his offspring. Martín Cortés de Zúñiga became the successor to the marquisate of the Valley of Oaxaca, as he stipulated in his will dated September 12, 1547.

Representation of the arrival of the conquistador Hernán Cortés and one of his servants.
Representation of the arrival of the conquistador Hernán Cortés and one of his servants (attributed), 16th century, AGN, Maps, Plans and Illustrations, record 2562.1, Codex Techialoyan of Cuajimalpa, from AGN, Colonial Institutions, Lands, vol. 3 684, exp. 1.

Upon learning of this event, Rodrigo de Hermosilla filed a complaint to have his debt paid, but the period of succession was delayed since his assets were retained by the King of Spain, leaving an executor and a proxy for the new Marquis of the Valley in charge. Despite having reliable proof of Cortés' debts, many were not paid.

Between 1568 and 1569, this legal proceeding was carried out, during which the original writ, witnesses, and the will of the marquis were requested to record the evidence and give a favorable sentence to Hermosilla. The process took a long time, so Francisco had to give Francisco de Escobar the right to represent him for the rest of the trial.

During the hearings, the writ of March 9, 1530, was reviewed to be compared with other documents written by Hernán Cortés to verify and authenticate his signature and handwriting. Likewise, the presidents and judges of the Royal Audience were ordered to take out and integrate the testament and the writ to make the payment effective.

Everything was going well for Francisco de Hermosilla since he had sufficient evidence; however, everything took a turn when the prosecutor in charge of the case ruled in favor of Don Martín Cortés, declaring him free of all debts. He argued that there was no proof of the debt, nor was there any deed to the contrary. Right away, the prosecution asked for time limits and filed appeals, which were granted, but the prosecutor demanded that the sentence be carried out.

This ruling seemed absurd to Hermosilla, so he presented a letter to the Royal Court in which he asked for a change of prosecutor since there was an inclination and support for the marquis, as well as a deadline to get more witnesses and recover the original writ of the last process.

Finally, the Royal Audience decided to reopen the case with a term of ten days to present, swear, and meet the witnesses, although the time was not enough and it was reiterated that the marquis was free of any debt.