Easter is only a few weeks away and there is no better time to tell the story of the Pontifical Swiss Guard who are willing to lay down their lives to protect the Pope. They are also charged with protecting the priceless treasures contained within the 26 Vatican Museums.
Located within the heart of Rome sits the smallest country in the world. The population of Vatican City is a mere 799 at the time of this writing and most of these residents are priests and nuns, working closely with the Pope. One of the most familiar sites for visitors to Vatican City are the men standing guard dressed in their striped blue, red and gold regalia, who carry halberds as their traditional weapons. While their dress is eccentric and their role appears ceremonial, looks are deceiving. The Swiss Guard is one of the most skilled and elite armies in the world and has had that distinction for over 500 years. A succession of 51 popes over the course of five centuries have entrusted their protection to this small group of men.
Every day, two thirds of the world’s smallest army are engaged in guarding the entrances to the Papal Apartments, the Belvedere Courtyard and are positioned on the floors of the various loggias and in the Sala Regia. Guards are also on duty at external entrances at the Petrine Gate, the Arch of the Bells, the Bronze Door and the St. Anna Gate.
Swiss soldiers have served in numerous capacities as bodyguards, ceremonial guards and palace guards at foreign European courts since the late 15th century. Other groups of young Swiss men have served as line troops in various armies up to the 19th century. The history of the Swiss Guard has its origins in the 15th century, when Pope Sixtus IV (1471–1484) allied with the Swiss Confederation. Pope Sixtus had barracks built in Via Pellegrino, foreseeing the possibility of recruiting Swiss mercenaries. The pact was renewed by Pope Innocent VIII (1484–1492) in order to use the mercenaries against the Duke of Milan. During the rule of the Borgia family, Swiss mercenaries became a fixture on the front lines among the warring factions, engaging in service for the Papal States, as well as the Holy Roman Empire.
When Cardinal della Rovere became Pope Julius II in 1503, he asked the Swiss to provide him with a standing corps of 200 mercenaries. In September 1505, the first contingent of 150 soldiers began its march towards Rome, entering the city on January 22, 1506, now the official date of the Guard’s founding. Julius later granted them the title “Defenders of the Church’s Freedom.” Henceforth, they became known as the Pontifical Swiss Guard of Vatican City.
The first true test of the Swiss Guards’ loyalty came two decades later on May 6, 1527, when 147 Swiss soldiers were killed protecting Pope Clement VII during the Sack of Rome. The surviving group of 42 guards were able to get the Pope to safety by utilizing secret passages connecting the Vatican to Castel Sant’Angelo in Rome.
Since then, members of this elite corps have carried on the time-honored tradition of protecting the Pope, as well as participating in ceremonial events. New recruits are sworn in during a solemn ceremony which takes place in the San Damaso Courtyard on May 6, a date commemorating the historic battle of 1527.
Young men who wish to serve as Swiss Guards undergo rigorous training and must meet strict requirements. Recruits must be unmarried Swiss male citizens between the ages of 19 and 30. They must be Catholic, at least 5’8″ tall and must have completed Swiss military training. The members of the Guard are expected to be ready to lay down their lives defending the Pope and to be of impeccable moral and religious character. Once joining the ranks, guards serve at least two years and are welcome to extend their service up to 25 years.
While most often seen holding a halberd, a two handed pole weapon with a spike mounted on a long shaft, Guards are also trained and equipped with modern firearms. During ceremonial events they may also carry a command baton, a partisan or a flamberge, which is a wavy two-handed sword.
The current uniform worn during ceremonies reflects the colors of the Medici family and have been used since the 1600s. Among the most common myth is that the uniform was designed by Michelangelo. Although the Renaissance genius was an accomplished sculptor, painter, architect and engineer, he was not a fashion designer. The uniforms have had minor changes through the centuries, but were inspired by Raphael’s fresco “The Mass at Bolsena.” The current uniform first used in 1914, was designed by Commandant Jules Repond. A single uniform is made of 154 pieces of cloth and must be custom tailored for each Guard. Each suit hanging near the armory has an individual soldier’s name pinned to it.
Today’s Swiss Guard consists of 135 soldiers, increased from 110 in 2019. In addition to the Commander, there are four other officers, as well as a priest who is the Chaplain of the Guard, six sergeants, one staff sergeant, ten corporals, ten vice-corporals and 102 halberdiers. The latter has the rank of private and are named for the weapon they carry. Swiss Guards are at the Pope’s side during public appearances, liturgical celebrations, general audiences and visits from foreign dignitaries. When not on duty they participate in inspections, briefings, marching, self-defense courses and shooting practice. Guards in their free time might join the band or choir, play games such as table tennis and show their soccer skills in matches against other Vatican teams.
If you visit the Vatican, make sure you take a moment to watch the Changing of the Guard, which takes place on the hour, every hour and is best seen beneath the bells on the left-hand side of Saint Peter’s Basilica. Even more impressive is the induction ceremony that takes place each May 6. Approaching the Swiss Guard’s flag, a recruit will grasp the banner in his left hand while raising his right hand with his thumb, index and middle finger extended to symbolize the Holy Trinity. The Chaplain of the Guard then reads the following oath: “I swear to faithfully, honestly and honorably serve the Supreme Pontiff and his legitimate successors and to dedicate myself to them with all my strength, ready to sacrifice, should it become necessary, even my own life for them.”
All members of the Swiss Guard are volunteers and are citizens of Switzerland. There are 30 to 40 new positions each year out of 200 to 300 applicants. The vast majority of halberdiers serve a two-year term and then return home. But while serving, the Guards are issued Vatican City passports.
A Swiss Guard with the rank of private earns about $18,400 per year, plus room and board. It is not until Guards reach the rank of corporal or higher that they are permitted to marry. For the first seven months they serve as “Guards of Honor” and cannot speak with the public until they complete this duty. If you see a Guard without a weapon, with their hands behind their backs, they may be approached and asked questions. You might even get to take a photograph with them. Finally, only Guards with the rank of sergeant are assigned to protect the Pope, which is a very elite status within the world’s most unique army.