By John J. Kennedy, PhD.
Associate Member
of the Académie internationale d'héraldique


During the late medieval period, the Mediterranean Sea was dominated by several powers: Venice and Genoa in Italy, the Islamic powers of Turkey and Egypt and to a lesser degree by such powers as the Knights of Rhodes. Trade in materials, spices, foods, slaves, etc. was commonplace. Endemic too were piracy and warfare between theso-called Christian powers and those of Islam. On the Islamic side too we ought to note that overland caravans from the far East travelled regularly across central Asia into the Levant, bringing such rarities as silk and teas and spices, then sold to Venetians for export to Europe at profit.

The maritime powers on the Atlantic were all too aware of the dominant position thatthe Italian middlemen played in selling such goods to Latin Christendom. In an attemptto find a new route to Asia and its material wealth, the sturdy Portuguese had for over half a century sailed down the west coast of Africa, discovering in the process gold, pepper, ivory and other natural resources as well as a staggering array of different peoples, animals and plants. Thanks to Bartholomeu Diaz and Vasco da Gama, the Portuguese finally rounded the treacherous waters of the Cape of Good Hope and sailed into the Indian Ocean, ultimately reaching India, China and Japan. Since the

Portuguese colonized, fortified, mapped and organized their profitable trade routes in that direction, the Spanish and other Atlantic Ocean European powers had little choice but to look westward. Already by 1500, some Portuguese had landed in what we now call Brazil for stopovers on their long African voyages.

Colombus's three ships finally spotted the beaches of San Salvador in 1492, whichthey mistook for part of Asia, since virtually no knowledge of the New World (North and South America) existed among European navigators. Subsequent voyages, however, revealed that these were not the fabled lands of Kublai Khan, which the Polo brothers had written. But, nevertheless, provided the search for the Passage to Asia.

But, as Spaniards began to take an interest in exploring and settling these new colonies tales of cities of gold (El Dorado) and of great empires came to their ears. From the Carribean islands of San Salvador, Cuba, Hispanola, Puerto Rico, Spanish explorers fanned out in search of adventure, of gold, and of native slaves who could work the large plantations (encomidias), which they began to set up. The tales of conquest of the Aztec Empire by the daring and wily Hernan Cortes has been told by a number of very talented historians (most recently and with considerable verve by Hugh Thomas, alias Lord Thomas of Swynnerton) (1), so it would be unwise to repeat that here. It is a tale of considerable suffering, daring, courage, faith, cowardice, greed, meanspiritedness and the highest bounds of the human spirit. Yet, often enough the establishment of New Spain is left at the conquest of the Aztecs in North American eyes. Few seem to appreciate the lengthy cross Pacific voyages from New Spain to the Phillipines, which were for some time a part of New Spain's Administration. Nor do many appreciate how the example of Cortes was not merely repeated by extended into Peru with the Incas by Pizarro and Almagro or how Colombia and Venezuela came to be a part of the empire of Spain thanks to the daring conquests and explorations not only of such Spaniards as Jimenez de Quesado but of such German captains and adventurers as Dalfinger, von Speyer, et al.

In our time, there has been a reaction to the Conquistadores. Their cruelty to the natives, their greed, their social organization which placed the natives in the bottom of the social pyramid, their diseases which eliminated thousands of natives who had no immunological defences against them. These matters were not new, however, for even in their own day several brave clerics protested against the exploitation and the misuse of colonial power against the native Americans. Still, some understanding if not excuse for these excesses can be found in the fact that many adventurers were from impoverished branches of families out to make their fortunes. Indeed, given the past 300 years of Spain's history nothing was perhaps more familiar to the Conquistadores than the encounter with a militant non-christian culture, whose language and creed they could not understand. Nor was slavery unfamiliar to anyone in the Mediterranean world from experience of the Islamic raids on their realms.

The Spaniards who became the famous Conquistadores, often arose in prominence from very humble circumstances indeed, receiving recognition for their efforts from the crown in the form of grants of arms, titles, land grants and political offices. While many, whom we know today were probably amongst these, not all can now be identified. Below therefore an initial foray into the company of the Conquistadores reveals only the more famous or notorious (depending on your historical perspective).

1.  Hernan CORTES, Conquistador of the Aztec Empire, Marques del Valle de Ouahca (1485-1547). A descendant of the powerful Monroy family, his father Martin being the illegitimate son of Rodrigo Perez de Monroy by Maria Cortes. But, among noble families such things were not regarded in Spain as a bar to nobility. Born in Medellin, Extremadura he studied at the University of Salamanca in 1499 without completing any degree. He left for Santo Domingo in 1504. He joined the conquest of Cuba with Diego Velasquez in 1511, where seven years later he received permission to lead an expedition to the Yucatan to investigate rumours of fabulous wealth. There he met the native woman Malinche (Dona Marina) who became both his mistress and interpreter. He then fought his way to the Aztec capital of Mexico, Tenochtitlan, eventually defeating the Montezuma (Motecuhzoma). He was named Governor of New Spain in 1522 by Charles I of Spain and was made the Marques del Valle de Oaxaca, and a powerful force in both the formation and exploration of Mexico during the 1530s. He returned to Spain in 1540 and lead an expedition to Algeria in 1541. He died in Spain in 1547.: Quarterly, 1st, Argent, a double headed eagle displayed Sable; 2nd, Sable, three antique crowns, posed 1 and 2 Or; 3rd, Gules, a lion rampant Or; 4th, Azure, on waves of the sea in base barry wavy of eight Azure and Argent, an encastellated city Argent; overall an inescutcheon Or, charged with four pallets Gules, within a bordure Azure charged with eight maltese crosses Argent, all within a bordure Or charged with seven Native Chiefs heads couped and affrontee proper, linked together by a chain Sable.

Figure 1 Figure 2 Figure 3
Figure 1 Figure 2 Figure 3

2.  Francisco de MONTEJO (c. 1473-1553), friend of Cortes, he set out to conquer the Maya of the Yucatan Peninsula in 1527. Unsuccessful at first because of the rugged terrain and because he had underestimated the fighting ability of the Maya, he moved into Honduras, becoming governor in 1536, only to be displaced by Pedro de Alvarado. Therefore, in 1537, Montejo returned to the Yucatan, joined by his son and nephew, bringing most of the area under Spanish control by 1542 and founding Merida as the capital of Yucatan. He gradually was able to suppress a rebellion beginning in 1547 but died in 1550. The Mayas continued to resist Spanish rule until 1697.: Quarterly, 1st, Gules, on a natural sea in base Azure a rock Argent, thereon a lion rampant contourne Or; 2nd, Azure, on a sea in base proper, a mount Vert, thereon a castle, with three towers Or, from each tower a flagstaff and a flag flying to the sinister Gules; 3rd, Azure, seven besants, 3, 3 and 1 Or; 4th, Or, five staves erect in pale Sable, flying from each one a rounded standard Azure saltirewise, all within a bordure Gules charged with 13 stars of six points Or.

3.  Pedro de ALVARADO y MESIA, (1485-1541) a professional soldier and companion of Cortes in 1519 as second in command in the conquest of the Aztecs. He led an expedition south from Mexico City into Guatemala in 1524, establishing the first Spanish settelment. He was made governor of Guatemala, a new captain generalship in 1527. His brother, Jorge, reclaimed the territories they had won earlier in Panama and El Salvador. In 1536, He left Central America, to join Pizarro in Peru, but disappointed, he returned to Spain where he married the noblewoman, Dona Beatriz de la Cueva. He returned to Central America with his wife, but in 1540 joined Francisco Vasquez de Coronado's expedition to northern Mexico in search of the fabled city of Cibola. He died on this expedition in 1541 in what is now the southwestern USA.: Or, in base barry wavy of four Azure and Argent, and five fleurs de lys posed in saltire of the Second.

4.  Francisco Vasquez de CORONADO (1510-1544). Born in Salamanca, he first came to Nueva Espana in 1535. Having married the daughter of a prominent royal official, he was appointed the governor of New Galicia, in north western Mexico. In 1540, he accompanied an expedition of Antonio Mendonza into the northern territories to seach for the fabled city of Cibola. This explored modern Arizona, parts of New Mexico, the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles. He located Cibola, which turned out to be the Zuni pueblo of Kawikuh. Some of his party discovered the Grand Canyon. He remained governor of New Galicia until 1544, dying in 1554.: Gules, a lion rampant barry of 6 Argent and Gules, crowned Or within a bordure Argent charged with 8 fleurs de lys Azure.

Figure 4 Figure 5 Figure 6
Figure 4 Figure 5 Figure 6

5.  Juan Ponce de LEON, (c.1460-1521), Governor of Puerto Rico, explorer of Florida. Born in Santavas del Campo, Valladolid, he came from a prominent and wealthy family with Christopher Colombus on the latter's second voyage in 1493. He settled in Hispaniola, but by 1509 was appointed governor of Puerto Rico. This he had to relinquish to Diego Colombus in 1511, but two years later he lead an expedition northwest to near St. Augusine, Florida, discovering in the process the Gulf Stream, which opened a new trade route from the West Indies to Spain. He became the Captain General of Puerto Rico in 1514, returning to Florida in 1521 where he was wounded in a skirmish with local Indians and died of complications from the wound later that year.: Per pale 1. Azure three isles in pale Or; 2. Argent a lion rampant Proper, crowned Or, langued gules.

6.  Miguel LOPEZ de LEGAZPI (His birthdate is unknown-1572), Conquistador of the Philippines. Born in Zubarraja, Guipuzcoa, he appears to have studied law before his arrival in the New World in 1531. He became an official in Mexico City and was appointed to head an expedition to the Philippines, which were then being claimed by both Portugal and Spain. Four previous expeditions to the Philippines by Magellan (1519-1522), Garcia Jofre de Loaysa (1525-1527) and Sebastian Cabot's (1526) and Alvarado de Saavedra Ceron's (1527-1529) all had gone by way of the west coast of Mexico across the Pacific. On November 21 1564, under Legazpi's command two ships departed from Puerto de la Navidad and arrived near the island of Cebu in 13 February 1565, setting the route which would be followed by the Manila Galleons would follow for the entire colonial period. Legazpi also and his men endured severe hardships when they were attacked by the Portuguese. Ultimately they moved to the island of Luzon and set the stage for its colonization. After defeating both Portuguese and native leaders, de Legazpi was named governor and captain general of the Philippines. Manila became his seat and he died in 1572 after several campaigns against the native Philippinos: Or five bendlets Sable.

7.  Dominigo MARTINEZ de IRALA y ALBISUA, Conquistador de Paraguay, founder of Asuncion (1510-1557). He was born in Vergara, Guipuzcoa to a wealthy family, and came to the New World with Pedro de Mendoza in 1535. He participated in the founding of Buenos Aires and then became second in command in the expedition to Paraguay searching for a route to Peru. He became governor of Paraguay in 1539-42, but outraged both church and civic officials by taking several Indian wives and by his encouragement of slavery. He was deposed and replaced by another goverenor, but the local settlers ousted the replacement and reinstalled Martinez de Irala. He then remained governor until his death in 1557.: Or, a lion rampant Gules, a bordure Azure charged with 13 panelas (spade shaped leaves) Argent.

Figure 7 Figure 8 Figure 9
Figure 7 Figure 8 Figure 9

8.  Pedro de MENDOZA, founder of Buenos Aires, Argentina (1487-1537). Born in Almeira to a wealthy family connected to Charles V of Spain, he was given orders to conquer the Rio de la Plata areas of South America (Argentina, Uraguay) and the southern part of Chile that Diego de Almagro had failed to claim. At the head of a huge expedition, he crossed to South America in 1535, arriving at Rio de la Plata in 1536, establishing the city of Santa Maris del Buen Aire (Buenos Aires). The settlement encountered fierce resistance from the Querindi Indians and were forced to abandon the site in 1537. On the return voyage to Spain he died in 1537.: Per saltire 1st and 4th Gules, a bend Vert fimbriated Or, 2nd and 3rd, Or, in orle the words "AVE MARIA" and GRATIA PLENA" in Italic script Azure.

9.  Francisco PIZARRO, Conquistador of Peru (1478-1541). Born in Trujillo, Extramadura as the illegitimate son of a Spanish soldier and a farmer's daughter, he grew up a social outcast and received no formal education. Despite this he was related as a cousin to Hernan Cortes. He found his fortune in the New World in 1502, when he sailed to Hispaniola. By 1513, he was with Vasco Nunez de Balboa in Darien where he was among those to discover the Pacific Ocean. By 1524, he was a prominent figure in Panama and so found financial backing for several expeditions into the continent of South America between 1524-1528. He returned to Spain in 1529 to obtain royal permission to conquer Peru. This began in 1531, when his forces landed in Ecuador, marched south to Cuzco in 1533, where he defeated and executed the Inca King Atahualpa. Pizarro was created a Marques by Carlos I of Spain and founded the city of Lima in 1535 crushing several Inca uprisings over the next six years as well as a civil war with Diego de Almagro. One of Almagro's followers assasinated Pizarro in 1541. Arms: Tierced in Pairle reversed, 1st, Per fess in Chief an eagle displayed Sable, crowned Or between two columns and a bordure Azure charged with the eight sheep between which runs the legend "CAROLI CESARIS AUSPITO ET LABORE INGENOS AC IMPENSA DUAS PIZARRO INVENTA ET PECATA" in letters Argent, in base Argent, a city, whose front gate is guarded by two lions rampant, all over the waves of the sea, on which float two ships all proper; 2. Tierced in Pairle reversed, 1. Argent the city of Cuzco proper, surmounted of a Crown proper, 2. Azure, a lion rampant proper grasping in its forepaws a letter "F" gules, and 3. Azure, a lion passant Argent, crowned and chained Or; 3. Gules the Inca King Atuhaulpa with a collar round his throat and his hands on his chest Or, on a bordure azure seven Inca indian heads conjoined by a chain proper. The entire achievement within a bordure Azure charged with eight griffins passant Or linked to one another by a chain Or. Overall on an inescutcheon the ancient arms of the Piazrros: Argent, a tree Vert supported by two bears rampant combatant Sable.

10.  Diego de ALMAGRO, Conquistador of Peru & Chile (1475-1538). An Extremaduran, both illegitimate and impoverished, he first came to Panama with an expedition lead by Pedro Arias de Avila. There he met Francisco Pizarro and joined his expedition to South America. He remained faithful to Pizarro on three expeditions to Peru between 1524 and 1533. Pizarro appointed him governor of Cuzco in 1534, but King Charles V of Spain had also named him governor of the province of New Toledo, which became modern day Chile. Accordingly, Almagro led an expedition in 1535 through Bolivia and northern Argentina to conquer Chile. Slowly realizing that Chile did not contain the wealth of the Incas of Peru, he returned to Cuzco in 1537. There he was killed in 1538 in a violent uprising.: Tierced in Pairle embowed in the 1st, Or, a double-headed eagle displayed Sable, 2nd, Or, a castle proper, fenestred and port ouvert Azure, the centre tower (of three) topped with a lance or, grip Azure, flying to the sinister there from a square banner Argent, charged with the letter "K" Or, surmounted of a Royal Crown; 3rd, Azure, a lion rampant Or grasping in the forepaws lance Or, gripped Azure, there from a square banner Argent, charged with a "I" Or, surmounted by a Royal Crown, all within a bordure Argent charged with eight ermine spots Sable.

Figure 10 Figure 11 Figure 12
Figure 10 Figure 11 Figure 12

11.  Pedro de VALDIVIA (1502-1553), Conquistador (1539, 1541) and Governor of Chile (1548). Another Extremaduran born in La Serana, he was a professional soldier who had fought both in Italy and in Flanders before coming to the New World. He first appears in Venezuela before we find him again in Peru with Pizarro, who commissioned him to attempt the conquest of Chile. His first effort was rebuffed and he tried again, founding the city of Santiago de Chile. He continued to fight the Araucanian Indians for a considerable time before returning to Peru in 1547. He was named governor of Chile in 1548. As such he attempted to conquer southern Chile for three years before being killed in 1553.: Parti per pale, 1. Argent, a holm oak tree Vert, fructed Or with a lion rampant purpure at its trunk, within a bordure Azure, charged with 8 saltires couped Or; 2. Or, an oak tree entwined with two serpents, affrontee mouth to mouth, each with a bloody mouth proper, in chief 3 stars of six points Gules.

12.  Francisco de ORELANNA (1511-1546), Explorer and relative of both Cortes and Pizarro. He was both in Trujillo, Etremadura of a well-known family and participated in the conquest of Peru with Pizarro. His claim to fame, however, comes in 1541 when he sailed down a tributary of the Amazon from the Peruvian highlands to the Atlantic Ocean in 1542. He later became Governor of New Andalucia (then a part of Venezuela) (1543).: Argent, 12 hurts posed 3, 3, 3 and 1, within a bordure Gules charged with 8 saltires couped Or.

13.  Gonzalo JIMENEZ de QUESADA (1509, Cordoba-1579 Cuba). He studied law at the University of Salamanca, practicing for several years before coming to south America in 1536. He led an expedition from Santa Marta (in modern Venezuela) exploring the Magdelena River. This led him into the high, lush plateau that was home to five Chibcha tribes. There taking advantage of Chibcha rivalries, Quesado established the city of Santa Fe near contemporary Bogota, Colombia. Unsuccessfully trying to become governor of this province known as New Granada, he returned to Spain, only to come out once again pernmanently in 1551. In 1569, he lead an expedition in search of the fabled city of El Dorado on the eastern slope of the Andes Mountains, but returned to Santa Fe empty handed in 1572. There he lavished his considerable talents on his chronicles of the conquest of New Granada (Venezuela and Colombia), dying in 1579.: Possible arms: Gules, four bastons Argent, each charged with six ermine spots Sable.

Figure 13 Figure 14 Figure 15
Figure 13 Figure 14 Figure 15

14.  His Eminence Bartolome de LAS CASAS, O.P., Bishop of Chiapas, Apostle of the Indians (1484-1566). Educated at the cathedral academy of Seville, he came to Cuba and became a planation owner of Indian slaves. Horrified by the treatment that the natives received in the Carribean, he returned to Spain, gave up his wealth and at 40, became a Dominican friar. In 1522 he wrote A VERY BRIEF RECITAL OF THE DESTRUCTION OF THE INDIES, which decried the treatment of Indians by the Spanish colonists and argued for the rights of the Indians in eloquent terms. In 1530, he wrote THE ONLY METHOD OF ATTRACTING MEN TO THE TRUE FAITH, in which he argued that Indians should be dealt with only through persuasion, affection and patience. In 1537, he was given a tract of land in Guatemala among the warlike Kekchi Indians, whose language he learned. He changed the name of the region from the "land of War" to the "land of True Peace" (Verapaz). He put his principles into practice and for 5 years was successful with the Kikchi peoples. But in 1542, other Spanish settlers were allowed into the territory and the Indians revolted. Las Casas was removed from Guatemala and made the bishop of Chiapas (Mexico), where he continued to champion the rights of the Indians. He eventually returned to Spain where he continued to debate the issue of whether the Spanish had any rights to conquer the Indians and make them slaves, most notably with the Aristotelian humanist Juan Giges de Sepulvedra. He was ably supported in this by a fellow Dominican Fray Francisco de Vitoria. Las Casas died in 1566 in Madrid, Spain.: Or five towers in saltire Gules, a bordure Azure charged with eight eagles' heads erased Or, dripping blood Gules.

15.  Fray Francisco de VITORIA, O.P. (1480-1560), a Basque, who grew up in Burgos, he entered the Dominican Order in 1504. He studied at the Dominican College of St. Jacques in Paris especially in ethics under the Scots nominalist, John Maior, who prompted his interest in fusing scholasticism and humanism. In 1523, he returned to Spain, lecturing at the University of Valladolid's San Gregorio College. With the Council of the Indies seated in the same town, Vitoria soon began to concern himself with numerous ethical and legal questions regarding the Indies. In 1526, he was appointed to the chair of theology at the University of Salamanca, where his writings on the Spanish treatment of the Indians of the New World became the basis for a form of international law. As a humanist, he defended the rights of the Indians and was opposed to their exploitation and enslavement. Vitoria elaborated the fundamental rights of all men and peoples, criticized the Spanish conquest and created a theory of liberty, which attacked simultaneously, the temporal power of the pope and emperor. This natural-law theory bound states to respect the inherent rights of peoples, nations and individuals. His sharp legal sense were probably most directly influential in the New Laws of 1542 regulating affairs in the New World. He died in 1560 at the age of eighty.: Azure, a castle triple towered between two lions combatant all Or.


1. HISTORICAL DICTIONARY OF THE SPANISH EMPIRE 1402-1975, Eds. Sam L. Slick, Samuel Freeman, Virginia Garrard Burnett and Fred Koestler. Greenward Press, New York, 1992.

2. Justus M. van Der Kroef, "Francisco de Vitoria and the Nature of Colonial Policy", in LAW INTERNATIONAL, v. 1, 1949, pp. 129-162.


4. Jose de Rujula y de Ochotorena, "El escudo de armas de Francisco Pizarro, conquistador del Peru", in REVISTA DE HISTORIA Y DE GENEALOGICA ESPANOLA, Ano II, Nos. 1 y 2, Madrid, 1913, pp. 136-143.

5. C.A. von Volborth, HERALDRY OF THE WORLD, Blandford Press, London, p. 163.


7. Hugh Thomas, HERNAN CORTES, London, 1996.

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