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The Amazing Survival Story of the Last Aztec Empress

Marea Harris

When the last Aztec Empress was born in the early 16th century to the Great Moctezuma II, all she had was her distinguished name. By the time she died at the age of 50, she had survived five husbands, mothered seven children, built a large estate and established a line of nobility that still endures today.

At her birth, which came in either 1509 or 1510, she was named “Tecuichpotzin Ixcaxochitzin,” which means “Lord’s Daughter” in the Nahuatl language. Being that she was the daughter of Moctezuma and his principal wife Teotlalco, Tecuichpotzin was recognized as the legitimate heir to the house of her father.

Moctezuma II, from the Codex Mendoza.

Moctezuma II, from the Codex Mendoza.

First, she was married to the Aztec emperor Atlixcatzin, but he died shortly after, making her a widow at about 10 years of age. On November 8, 1519, the Spanish Hernán Cortés invaded Tenochtitlan and led the siege of Montezuma’s palace.

Moctezuma’s Palace from the Codex Mendoza (1542).

Moctezuma’s Palace from the Codex Mendoza (1542).

When Moctezuma was taken a hostage and killed, the Aztec people took Tecuichpotzin and married her to her uncle, Emperor Cuitláhuac.

While the Aztecs managed to drive Cortés out of Tenochtitlan in June of 1520, the Spanish had brought the deadly smallpox disease with them. Cuitláhuac fell victim to the disease and died, leaving Tecuichpotzin a widow for the second time.

Tenochtitlan. Photo by Mariana277 CC BY-SA 3.0

Tenochtitlan. Photo by Mariana277 CC BY-SA 3.0

Next, she was married to emperor Cuauhtémoc. In 1521, Cortés returned to Tenochtitlan in greater numbers. By that time, the Aztec population had been devastated by the smallpox epidemic. Emperor Cuauhtémoc was outmanned and forced to retreat by boat.

However, Cortés and his army caught up with Cuauhtémoc and captured him. This officially ended the Spanish conquest but the bloodshed at the hands of the Spanish was not over. In 1525, Cuauhtémoc was executed by Cortés and Tecuichpotzin was widowed for the third time.

Cortés and La Malinche meet Moctezuma in Tenochtitlan, November 8, 1519.

Cortés and La Malinche meet Moctezuma in Tenochtitlan, November 8, 1519.

But Cuauhtémoc had made a dying plea for Cortés to treat the women of his court with respect, especially his young wife, Tecuichpotzin. Cortés respected the wish and considered Tecuichpotzin the personification of what he hoped would be the melding of the Spanish and Aztec cultures.

After being taught by the Spaniards about Christianity, Tecuichpotzin became a Catholic and was renamed “Doña Isabel.” In June 1526, she was married to a Spaniard, Alonso de Grado, and granted the most expensive “encomienda” in the Mexican Valley. Doña Isabel used her wealth to pay such generous alms to the Augustinians that she was asked to stop.

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When Alonso de Grado died, Cortés took the seventeen-year-old widow into his house. They were never married, so when Doña Isabel became pregnant, Cortés quickly wed her to Pedro Gallego de Andrade. But Doña Isabel did not acknowledge the child, and Cortés ended up caring for her himself.

Modern reproduction of the Aztec feather headdress attributed to Moctezuma II exhibited at the Museo Nacional de Antropología e Historia, Mexico City. Photo by Thomas Ledl CC BY-SA 4.0

Modern reproduction of the Aztec feather headdress attributed to Moctezuma II exhibited at the Museo Nacional de Antropología e Historia, Mexico City. Photo by Thomas Ledl CC BY-SA 4.0

Doña Isabel bore a son with her fifth husband and named him Andrade Gallego Moctezuma. Gallego died in 1532, and Doña Isabel married Juan Cano de Saavedra. He was her sixth and final husband. The union produced five children: Pedro, Gonzalo, Juan, Isabel, and Catalina Cano de Moctezuma.

When Doña Isabel died, she willed that all her Indian slaves be freed and that all outstanding debts to her servants be paid. She also left one-fifth of her estate to the daughter whom she had born by Cortés.

Genealogy of Tecuichpoch (Isabel Moctezuma). Photo by HJPD -CC BY-SA 3.0

Genealogy of Tecuichpoch (Isabel Moctezuma). Photo by HJPD -CC BY-SA 3.0

Doña Isabel willed the majority of her encomienda to her firstborn son, Juan de Andrade, and it endured for centuries after she was gone.

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All of her children became well-educated. Her two daughters became nuns at El Convento de la Conception de la Madre de Dios, and her sons founded the title of Duke of Moctezuma de Tultengo, which still exists today.