Knight of Our Lady
On Dec. 9th 1531 (the eve of the Immaculate Conception) Juan Diego was walking to Mexico City for Mass. When he came to the top of a small hill, called Tepeyac, which led to the causeway that connected the mainland to the island city, he saw an apparition of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the middle of a cloud. The Blessed Virgin asked for a Sanctuary to be built on that hill. After some reluctance and incredulity from the local bishop Our Lady asked Juan Diego to pick some roses that were growing nearby and arranged them for him to carry in his tilma (cloak) and show them to the bishop as a sign. When eventually brought before the bishop, the roses fell to the floor and on the cloak was visible the magnificent image of the Blessed Virgin Mary now known as Our Lady of Guadalupe. Our Lady had shown her newly converted Mexican Catholics that she was their patroness and protector. Within 5 years, five million Indians were baptized in Mexico.
Into the pagan, cannibalistic and blood-thirsty civilization of the Aztecs an unusual man appeared in the pages of their history in about 950 AD. Into a culture heavily involved in the satanic rituals of human sacrifice came a man called Topiltzin, preaching about one true God who abhorred human sacrifice and demanded that men be charitable and chaste. The demonic idols and their priests eventually drove this man out of the country. Nevertheless, in a strange and incomprehensible way, they added the name of this new God to their own litany of pagan gods as yet another deity. He was called Quetzalcoatl and prophecies accompanied his worship, especially the widely believed prediction that this unique God would return to Mexico sometime in the future. He would be dressed in black, would have a beard, and return sometime in his "Anniversary Year." (which occurred every 52 years). The Prophecy said that Quetzalcoatl would then overthrow all the other Gods, would rule Mexico and usher in a new glorious age. This Anniversary was to occur again in 1519.
Columbus discovered the Caribbean Coast in 1492 under the patronage of Queen Isabella of Spain. By 1511, Cuba was discovered and conquered. In 1517, the first expedition sailing from Cuba touched the Yucatan Peninsula on the American Continent.
The local Mayan Indians who indulged in devil worship and human sacrifices attacked The Spaniards. A second expedition in 1518 landed further north at Vera Cruz in the Gulf of Mexico and met with a less hostile reception from the native Indians who were allies of the Aztecs.
A third expedition was led by Hernan Cortez, 33yrs old, tall and strong, a devout catholic, who had a deep devotion the Blessed Virgin Mary, (he prayed the 'Little office' every morning) and attended mass every day. He was known for his courage, his patience and reluctance to swear or curse. Cortez proudly wore a medal of Our Lady on a chain of gold around his neck and led his forces under the banner of the Royal Arms of Spain emblazoned with the words "Brothers and companions, let us follow the sign of the cross with true faith and in it, we shall conquer!" In February 1519, he landed a force comprising 508 soldiers, 100 sailors and 16 horses, all in 11 ships on the coast of Mexico. In his first conflict, on March 25th, Cortez led his men against 150,000 Indians. 70 Spanish soldiers were wounded, 220 Indians were killed.
On Good Friday, Cortez landed at Vera Cruz. In memory of the crucifixion, the bearded Cortez wore black. The year was 1519! Montezuma, King of the Aztecs, had sent his ambassador to greet Cortez. The impressive armada of ships, the sight of horses and large dogs, cannons and armour and especially the fair haired Cortez dressed in black was enough to convince Montezuma that Quetzalcoatl had returned!!! When the ambassador reported of the Spaniards' determination to Christianize the Aztec nation, Montezuma ordered that all the provincial nations who were allies of the Aztecs, avoid contact with the 'invaders.' Cempoala, a province a short distance north of Vera Cruz, decided to support Cortez, because of their dislike of the Aztecs.
Cortez built a fort near it's capital. When it was finished, he left 130 men there as a garrison. Cortez then proceeded to burn 9 of the10 ships that were left in order to demonstrate his determination to conquer Mexico-there was no retreat! "We no longer have ships in which to return… we must depend upon our stout hearts and strong blows… with the help of Our Lord Jesus Christ we can expect no other help than His."
Of the estimated 15,000,000 Aztecs in Mexico at this time 1/5 were capable of bearing arms. This meant a possible 3,000,000 against the 300!!! One would be hard pressed to find a force more daring and courageous than this band of Spanish men. On August 16th, Cortez left Cempoala and after a 3-day march, reached the hills of Jalapa (4,700 feet) without any hindrance. They passed through a steep and jagged pass, which they named 'Nombre de Dios' (the name of God) and proceeded down its western slopes onto a 7,000 feet plateau. For several days, they were unable to access fresh water or food. The village of Zautla in the valley below presented them with a sample of the many evils to come. 100,000 skulls lined the central palace plaza and the people were hostile, evil sodomites and cannibalistic butchers. The next province called Tlaxcala sent 3,000 warriors against Cortez as he entered their territory. On the second day, they sent 6,000 warriors. On the third day, 25,000 attacked Cortez. The Spanish force repulsed all three attacks. The well trained Spanish soldiers who fought in armour against almost naked Indians wielding only spears, with swords, cross-bows, muskets and cannons and who fought to kill rather than the Indians who fought to take hostages for human sacrifice, helps to explain why such a small force were able to defeat such a large number of the enemy. However, nearly all the Spanish were wounded and 45 were dead. Cortez had to use his great eloquence to raise their failing spirits. "The greater the King we seek, the wider the land, the more numerous the enemy, so much the greater will be our glory…we are obligated to exult and increase our holy Catholic faith which we undertook to do like good Christians, uprooting idolatry, that great blasphemy to our God, abolishing sacrifices and the eating of human flesh… consider well all that we have accomplished… God is helping us."
In the end, Christian courage and faith prevailed. The Tlaxcalans sued for peace and became an important ally in the fight against the Aztecs. Montezuma was now almost convinced that the invaders were Gods and offered Cortez any amount of treasure not to approach the capital
Tenochtitlan, now only 60 miles away. Cortez ordered a 3 week rest for his men, and arranged for the reserve stores of hosts and wine for daily mass to be sent from Vera Cruz- without the body and blood of Christ, he dared not continue his conquest.
His next sortie was into Cholula the ancient site of the Holy City of Quetzalcoatl’s temple. After an initial, cautious reception, this ally of Montezuma plotted to slaughter the Spanish Army in a surprise attack the next day. The plot was discovered, and in typical Cortez fashion, he confronted the 3,000 strong would be assassins in the central courtyard of the city and after boldly proclaiming their treachery and cowardliness, commenced a 5 hour battle with his men. Most of the Cholulan soldiers were killed. Montezuma, on hearing of this event, collapsed into a coma for 8 days. In his absence, the Aztec council decided to allow Cortez to enter Tenochtitlan- the alternative was an all out war. Tenochtitlan was built on an island in Lake Texcoco, a 50 mile lake surrounded by almost 30 cities. Access to the city, was by one of 4 cause-ways (piers) which were able to be dismantled in sections to prevent any invaders from entering. When the Spanish Army looked from Mt. Popocatapelt down onto the incredibly majestic sight of Tenochtitlan, (a city larger than Seville in Spain) and also the cities around the lake's shore; their courage failed them. Cortez again had to rally his troops and appeal to Spanish valour. On Nov. 8th 1519, the Spanish forces accompanied by thousands of Tlaxcalan allies marched over the eastern cause-way leading to Tenochtitlan, to the cheers of thousands of Mexicans. It had taken twelve weeks to cover the 650km. distance from the coast Montezuma walked down along the wide, clean, beautiful avenue lined with houses and temples and greeted Cortez as a returning God.
In the next 3 months, history records events, equal in climax to the taking of Jerusalem in the first Crusade, the re-conquest of Seville by King Saint Ferdinand, and the battle of Waterloo. In less than 7 months, Cortez had landed, conquered and been received as an honoured guest of the ruler of 15,000,000 people. By Nov.15 Montezuma was effectively Cortez's prisoner and Cortez's was ruling Mexico through Montezuma, although he was himself a prisoner in the city. He was unable to effect a change of leadership or worship without risking an uprising. Montezuma had received Cortez as Quetzalcoatl himself - as a returning god. Cortez and his men along with 2000 Tlaxcalans had been led to huge palace and waited upon. Cortez had insisted on placing his canons and sentries before he sat down to eat. He had never claimed to be Quetzalcoatl but quietly played along with the deceit.
That next morning in visiting Montezuma in his palace of 100 rooms (each with its own bath, walls of marble, porphyry and alabaster, cedar ceilings and richly carpeted floors) Cortez told Montezuma of his plan to Christianize Mexico, stop human sacrifice and the worshiping of idols. He also asked for a room to be used as a chapel to which Montezuma agreed. Montezuma delayed his response to Cortez's plan to Christianize the Aztecs and met with his council to decide what to do with these Spanish gods.
Meanwhile Cortez and his men visited the local marketplace which boasted a huge plaza, with a towering theatre structure with 70 tall poles - the steps, benches and walls were constructed of stones and human skulls - they counted over 136,000. On top of this pyramid of 114 steps were two chapels, dedicated to the Aztec gods - Huitzilopochtli and Tezcatlipoca. The walls and floor were caked in blood and it stank!
Cortez knew that Montezuma was unsure of his status i.e. was he a god or a man? Familiarity would soon lead to contempt and therefore he decided to move against Montezuma before Montezuma moved against him.
In the meantime, back at Vera Cruz an over diligent general of Montezuma who had led an attack against the Spanish troops was arrested, brought to Tenochtitlan and burnt at the stake by Cortez in a public show of power. Cortez had made Montezuma watch the execution and used this act of treachery as an excuse to make Montezuma and his brother and nobles swear allegiance to Charles V, King of Spain. He also demanded a large tribute of gold and silver and a chapel in the temple itself, where Mass would be celebrated daily. One solitary soldier was placed on guard here. Very soon a deputation of priests of Montezuma told Cortez that Huitzilopochtli had demanded the removal the statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the crucifix and the altar from the chapel or there would be war. Cortez replied that the Christian Knights of Spain would gladly fight for their God and for the mother of God. By now, his Spanish blood was boiling. He marched up to the temple, smashed the head of the idol and removed the others, replacing them with Christian statues and the cross. The Spaniards sang a Te Deum. Father Olmedo stepped forward. "Introibo ad altare Dei"… The soldiers took off their helmets. Shortly thereafter Montezuma informed Cortez that his "gods" had demanded that all the Spaniards be killed unless they left Tenochtitlan immediately. Cortez agreed as long as he was given enough time to rebuild his ships and that Montezuma must accompany him to Spain. Cortez also forbade any more human sacrifices. Meanwhile an unauthorized landing of twelve ships from Cuba containing 1000 soldiers, all hungry for the reputed treasures of the Aztecs, had arrived at Vera Cruz.
Cortez left half of his troops in Tenochtitlan and hurried to the coast and captured the leader of this expedition in a daring night raid. With his legendary eloquence Cortez persuaded this new force to support him in his crusade. During this episode, back in Tenochtitlan, an imprudent decision by the Spanish commander to kill hundreds of unarmed natives involved in a pagan festival led to an all out attack by the Aztecs on the Spanish forces. Two brave Tlaxcalans escaping the city by night managed to warn Cortez who immediately returned with the extra 1000 troops. Montezuma's brother was declared emperor and when Cortez returned, war broke out again. The palace where the Spanish soldiers were held up was attacked day and night by innumerable Aztecs who threw stones, burning missiles and fired arrows without ceasing. In an attempt by the Spanish to get Montezuma to pacify the angry Aztecs he was stoned by the crowd and died a few days later. Shortly after this attack Cortez led most of his men out of the palace to the temple to protect the image of the Blessed Virgin Mary there. With 500 picked Aztec warriors surrounding the temple and 40 ft. logs rolled down the steps on top of them, Cortez and his men fought like men possessed and recaptured their temple chapel. Cortez proceeded to demolish the hideous new images of Huitzilopochtli and burnt everything evil in the temple. For years the Aztecs spoke of this attack as the most heroic feat of the Spanish Conquest.
This battle was won but the war continued unabated. Food and water for the Spanish forces was running out. Powder supplies were running low. Cortez decided to evacuate as soon as possible. Montezuma's brother, trying to make escape extremely difficult, had destroyed all of the eight bridges on the causeway to Taluba. After 10 p.m., the moon hidden by rain, they made a break for this causeway with a mobile bridge to span the 4 metre gap. Father Olmedo said mass before the exit. They were, however, soon discovered and amidst much noise and shouting thousands of Aztecs attacked them on foot and on the water in canoes. Chaos reigned. There was no light; gold and booty on the slippery causeway in terrible weather also weighed down the soldiers. Half the Spanish army perished either by drowning or by being butchered. Two thousands Tlaxcalans and 100 Spaniards desperately crawled over each other for the safety of the mainland, staggering, slipping, walking on piles of dead bodies which had filled the gaps in the causeway. Later the Spaniards called this the "night of sorrows".
Nearly every surviving Spaniard was wounded and exhausted. There was no medicine, no food and of the 24 horses (out of 80) that survived, none could raise a gallop. Nevertheless they fought another 4 miles to a small hill which had a temple tower, conquered it and barricaded themselves inside, using the short night to recuperate a little and pray a lot. The survivors could now see their captured comrades being sacrificed on the Cactus Rock Temple across the lake. Most leaders would now have retreated but Cortez would not. Being a prudent man he however organized a safe place to regroup and recover back in Tlaxcala.
During this forced march, the Indians harassed and harried them, preventing their collecting provisions. The sick and the wounded were carried on the lame horses and on hastily made stretchers or were given rudimentary crutches. On July 7th, passing the northern edge of Lake Texcoco, on the plain of Otumba, they ran into Emperor Cuitahuac and his huge army. They were trapped between a hostile native population at the rear and an immense army at the front. They had no guns left, only a few horses, some armour, mail and swords. Cortez halted his march and ordered his troops to eat the few items of food they still had. With divinely inspired courage Cortez met the 200,000 strong Indians in battle. When Cortez slew the Aztec general with a lance throw, the enemy lost courage and retreated. Certain death had become a crushing victory! The Tlaxcalan king received the small band of Spaniards as super heroes and whilst recuperating Cortez set his mind to re-conquering Tenochtitlan. For the Tlaxcalan people Cortez was a liberator from Aztec totalitarianism. For Cortez, his proposed imminent return to Tenochtitlan was driven by his desire to punish the Indians, who had vowed allegiance to King Charles and had broken all the Christian laws of Spain.
Cortez secured his supply lines from Vera Cruz to Tlaxcala. He brought all the spare military supplies and personnel to Tlaxcala and set about building a fleet of brigantines to attack the island city.
By Christmas 1520, the reinvigorated army now boasting 600 men, 40 horses and 9 canons set out for Mexico City. When the city again came in view from the final mountain pass, all now vowed to return victorious or not at all. Cortez planned to launch his boats on Lake Texcoco. However since their absence small pox brought by the invaders had killed thousands of Indians as well as the emperor (their Tlaxcalan allies were similarly affected.) The new emperor, Cuauhtémoc, the nephew of Montezuma was fanatical. Fortunately, the new Tlaxcalan king was as equally pro Spanish as his predecessor. Cuauhtémoc refused a truce offering from Cortez and continually led attacks on Cortez's base camp near Chalco on the shores of the lake. Finally in Feb 1521, 8,000 Tlaxcalan bearers, 20,000 Tlaxcalan soldiers and Spanish soldiers arrived in a procession that continued for 6 hours, carrying the 13 brigantines in knock down form. At Vera Cruz, fresh troops - 350 infantry and 46 cavalry had landed and soon joined their comrades. Fierce battles were fought. In one of these Cortez was almost killed, the result of an imprudent frenzied attack by his over zealous soldiers. Cortez was attempting to capture all the main cities surrounding the central lake and thus create a noose around the capital city of Tenochtitlan and thereby effectively isolating it. Cuauhtémoc was preparing to fight to the death and so it was. The once great city of Tenochtitlan was to be destroyed! 100,000 Indians were to die, (total population was 300,000) fighting in the city. Another 100,000 were to die from starvation, drowning and dysentery. Cortez offered peace terms but the Humming Bird Wizard forbade the emperor to surrender.
On 28th April 1521, Father Olmedo offered mass and blessed the 13 brigantines, each of which was capable of carrying 25 men. 1,000 Spaniards and 75,000 Indian allies prepared to do battle. The entrances to the causeways were guarded. The 93 day siege was about to begin. 3 causeways led to Mexico City. The southerly one and largest was Y shaped and was used in the first crossing a year or so ago. A second led west to Tacuba and was used on the Night of Sorrow. The third, to the north led to the hill of Tepeyac - it was here that Our Lady appeared to Juan Diego just over 10 years later.
Cortez ordered the largest force to attack along the southern causeway. Alvarado took the western, Sandoval, the northern one. Night attacks were impossible due to the placement of booby traps and stakes in the water, designed to destroy the boats. Any daytime advances were forfeited because by dusk Cortez's men had to retreat. The defenders also destroyed any gaps that were filled in on the causeway, at night. Cuauhtémoc thought that this would discourage the Spaniards - he obviously did not know the Spanish. By the 9th June they had reached the centre of the city, as far as the palace of Axayacatl, which they dutifully burnt to the ground. The unavoidable retreat at the end of each day meant that the following day they had to fight all day to reach the exact same spot again. This occurred for days on end. On June20 1521 - the anniversary of the "night of sorrow" - Spanish blood was up and the hot headed soldiers charged unthinkingly across the causeway, hoping to capture the market square. Insufficient care to guard the retreat line resulted in the causeway being sabotaged by the Aztecs and in part of the Spanish force being cut off from the main army.
The retreating soldiers were therefore forced to swim the breaches, resulting in their being overcome by the multitude of Indians. Cortez led a brave counter attack. Christobal de Olea saved Cortez's life when Hernan was almost captured, and he himself died in the act.
The clumsy retreat led to 70 Spanish prisoners being taken. All of them were soon stripped, flayed, dismembered and sacrificed on top of the temple in sight of the Spanish forces.
By July 1521 Cortez having increased the size of the ally's army from 75,000 to 150,000 attacked the city and ordered instant death to all who refused to surrender immediately. Within a few days the city was captured. The Hummingbird Wizard's temple was put to the torch. Fighting from a canoe for several more weeks, Cuauhtémoc eventually surrendered on the feast of the Assumption, 15th Aug.
For ninety three days the war zone had been filled with the ear shattering sounds of whistles, horns, "those accursed drums" and yelling and shrieking. As one eye witness commented, it was like being in a bell tower. Then suddenly there was silence. The destruction of evil does not presuppose the triumph of good. For Christianity to flourish in the fertile soil of Mexican hearts, from which the weeds of idolatry and Satanism had been heroically removed, it would require an equally spiritual heroism.
Cortez himself acknowledged his and his men's unsuitability to convert these pagan natives. This would be left to holier and less belligerent Catholic Franciscan missionaries, who were enthusiastically encouraged by the Dutch Pope, Adrian, who had been Charles V's tutor. In July 1522, Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and king of Spain refusing to listen to the calumnies against Cortez, wrote and congratulated him on his success, named him Captain-General of 'New Spain' and urged him to convert the Indians and end idolatry and cannibalism. Cortez renamed Tenochtitlan Mexico City and commenced its re-building. In 1532 Henry VIII led the English Nation into schism by refusing to recognize the pope as head of the church in England. One nation rejected the true faith, just as another embraced it with enthusiasm.
Hernan and his conquering Spaniards were the true precursors. Cortez was a "John the Baptist" preparing the fertile soil for others to sow. Over the next ten years, however, only a small percentage of the native population was converted. The appearance of BVM to Blessed Juan Diego in 1531 and the subsequent miracle, resulting in the devotion to Our Lady of Guadeloupe, led to a surge of conversions. Within 50 years, 20 million Indians were baptized! These 20 million spoke 114 languages and were spread over an incredibly rugged terrain. When later, Charles V had asked Hernan to describe Mexico's terrain; Cortez took a piece of paper crumpled it and threw it on the table in front of the emperor. "This" he said, "is Mexico's terrain." It was an immense task. In comparison it took the Portuguese 300 years to convert half of Angola; 200 years for the Spanish to convert most of the Philippines and 100 years to convert Peru. Mexico became, thanks to Hernan Cortex, and has remained even through severe persecutions, a Catholic country.
A detailed history of Mexico's spiritual conquest would require as much time as we have given to its physical conquest and is best left for another essay. However one incident is worth telling. When the first ragged, dusty and bare-footed Franciscan missionaries reached Mexico City in July 1524 (having walked the 650 kms from Vera Cruz) Cortez came out leading Cuauhtémoc and many Spanish noblemen to greet the missionaries. Cortez then immediately fell on his knees and devotedly kissed the leading monk's habit. As a final tribute to the incredible determination and courage of Hernan Cortez, (that I hope and pray that all you boys will emulate, especially in the fight for the return of the reign of Christ in this pagan world) is the story of his trek to Honduras. One of his commanders had been ordered to conquer Honduras, but had now refused to return to Mexico and began to rule independently of Cortez. This rebel commander had sailed around the Yucatan peninsula to reach Honduras. Cortez however decided to travel overland to personally remove this disloyal soldier.
A look at the map of southern Mexico and Guatemala (which had also been conquered by another of Cortez's commanders) shows a very steep and rugged terrain. There were no roads. The jagged mountains which to this day are barely touched by rail or road are still mostly impassable. Only a few years ago with modern engineering expertise, has a road been cut through this inhospitable mountain range. Cortez and his army passed through these mountains. No army has ever done so since and probably never will again. It took 8 months. His men were often on the verge of starvation. They had to build bridges sometimes over one mile long. Although thought by many historians as an imprudent and futile trip, if we ignore the politics we can only but marvel at the indefatigable courage and determination of Cortez to achieve any task he set himself.
If we can do no more than learn this lesson of heroic determination in attempting to bring honour and glory to God, then we have learnt enough.