Cortés Relates the Final Conquest and Destruction of Tenochtitlán - Sir Thomas Phillipps' Copy

Cortés, Hernán (1485-1547)

Tertia Ferdinandi Cortesii … in nova maris oceani Hyspania generalis praefecti praeclara Narratio

Nuremberg: Friedrich Peypus, 1524


Folio: 28.6 x 19.4 cm. 56 leaves: ff. [4] LI, [1].


Bound in attractive 19th-century red morocco, with a small frame of double fillets and dentelles, gilt, on the covers, spine in 7 compartments richly gilt, title lettering in second and third compartment, edges and turn-ins gilt, marbled endpapers, all edges gilt. Featuring a magnificent title page with an elaborate woodcut border and a half-page profile portrait of Emperor Charles V. On the verso, a full-page woodcut of the royal arms, surrounded by the chain of the Order of the Golden Fleece. Numerous decorative woodcut initials, woodcut printer’s device at end. A fine copy, a few wormholes going through the book carefully and inconspicuously restored.

Title translation:

"The Third Narration of Fernando Cortés… Captain-General of New Spain, Containing the conquest of the celebrated city of Temixtitan, and the recovery of other provinces which had been lost; in the conquest and recovery of which the Governor and Spaniards gained victories worthy of being remembered; besides which is related how Cortés discovered the South Sea, which we consider the Southern Indian Ocean, and innumerable other provinces abounding in gold mines, pearls, and various kinds of precious stones, and whereby it was made known that they also contain spices."

This is the rare first Latin edition of Cortés Third Letter, one of the great monuments in the literature of early American discovery and exploration. Cortés (1485-1547), the soldier and adventurer who in 1519-1521 conquered for Spain the Aztec Empire in what is now central and southern Mexico, sent five extended letters to Emperor Charles V in which he described his exploits.

It is in this, his third letter, that Cortés recounts in vivid detail the events that followed his retreat from Tenochtitlán on the "noche triste" (sorrowful night) of June 30th, 1520. Despite great losses, over the course of nineteenth months, Cortés, his men, and their Amerindian allies would bring an end to the Aztec empire, and firmly establish Spanish rule in "New Spain". The climax of the letter is Cortés' harrowing account of the capture and destruction of the great cities of Tenochtitlán and Tlatelolco, and the surrender of Cuauhtémoc, the last ruler of Tenochtitlán, on 13 August 1521, marking the end of the Mexica Empire.

Cortés' letter did not reach Spain until November 1522, but news of the victory had reached the Emperor in March of that year, and Charles V decided to make Cortés the adelantado (commander in chief with proconsular responsibilities), repartidor (distributor) of Indians, and also governor and Captain-General of "New Spain", a term that Cortés himself had coined, and which we find on the title page of this edition.

The letter, written at Coyohuacan (Coyoacán), is dated 15 May 1522. It was first printed in Spanish at Seville in 1523. This Latin translation is the work of Pietro Savorgnano, secretary to the bishop of Vienna.

This edition is very rare. The Latin editions of the second and third letters were issued at the same time by the same printer but are separate publications. The Third Letter is the rarer of the two. We can trace some ten copies in American public libraries, and another twelve in Europe (KVK, WorldCat), including both separate copies and copies united with the second letter. Accordingly rare in commerce: only four copies in ABPC since 1975, all of which sold in the 1980s (including the present copy). The Spanish edition (Seville, 1523) is unobtainable.


1. Cheltenham, Sir Thomas Phillipps (1792-1872), the legendary bibliomaniac book collector. 2. London, Sotheby’s, 26 June 1986, lot 535 (“Phillipps copy”). 3. Schweinfurt, Otto Schäfer collection (OS 1373), acquired through Martin Breslauer at the aforementioned auction.

Sabin, A Dictionary of Books relating to America, no. 16948. – Harrisse, Bibliotheca Americana Vetustissima, 1866, no. 126; Alden/Landis, European Americana, no. 524/8; Church Catalogue no. 54; The World Encompassed no. 232; Nebenzahl, Atlas of Columbus and the Great Discoveries, p. 76; Streeter sale I, no. 190; A. Delgado-Gomez, Spanish Historical Writing about the New World 1493-1700, exh. cat. JCB Library, Providence 1992, no. 7a; Howgego I, pp. 268-70