The Papal Swiss Guard is one of the oldest military units in the world, having existed in its current form since 1506. Die Hundertschweizert appropriately consist of five officers, twenty-five non-commissioned officers, and seventy enlisted guards. The Swiss guards may appear ceremonial, but in fact, their role is similar to the Buckingham Palace guards in that they wear colorful uniforms, but also use modern weapons and tactics in addition to their traditional halberts and relief ceremonies.

History of the Swiss Guard

During the the 15th and 16th centuries, Swiss mercenaries were a common augmentation to many European nations. The mercenaries were not volunteers then. Each Swiss canton would form treaties with neighboring powers, and commit a certain number of soldiers to that power in a process called Capitulation. The most famous of this include the Guarde Suisse of the French Monarchy (120,000 strong) and the Swiss regiment of England's army. Unfortunately, between the Swiss loyalty and the European attitude that the Swiss were disposable, conditions as a Swiss mercenary were not good. During the French revolution, France- the last nation to hold Swiss Guards- outlawed the holding of Swiss Guards. This ended the practice of mandatory Swiss capitulations dating to the Everlasting Peace of 1516, although Swiss guards served under Napoleon I in the Russian campaigns of 1812 when they were slaughtered, and in July Revolution of 1830 when they were systematically executed. These two events led to an abolishment by the Swiss Constitution of 1874 forbidding capitulations although some continued until 1927 when serving in a foreign power was absolutely prohibited.

The one legal exception to this was serving in the guard of the Pope, a traditional Swiss role since 1525 when Francis I (the "warrior Pope") recruited one hundred hand selected Swiss men to be his guard. Their first test as the Pope's personal bodyguards occurred 6 May, 1527 when Rome was sacked by approximately 22,000 Spanish and Germanic warriors. The 200 guards fought valiantly in defense of Pope Clement VII with 147 killed in the fight, including the captain, Kaspar Roist. The remaining guards escorted the Pope to Castel San Angelo where they negotiated a surrender after a month's siege. In a twist of irony, the canton of Zurich had recently converted to Protestantism in the recent Reformation, and had recalled Roist and his fellow Zurichers. Roist and company had decided to wait for the violence of the Reformation to pass before returning; instead the violence came to them.

The Swiss Guard has also seen action in two other famous events. During Napoleon's raid on Rome in 1798, the Papal Swiss Guards defended their charge loyally but without success. The Pope was hurried from Rome by the Swiss Guard, but was captured and died in captivity. Later, during a visit to St. Peter's Square in 1981, Pope John Paul II was the victim of an attempted assassination. Shot in the chest, he was quickly covered by a plain-clothed Swiss Guard, while other members of the Pope's detail eliminated the attacker.

Uniform of the Swiss Guard

The Swiss Guard's uniform, replete with a pike or halbert is popularly believed to be designed by Michelangelo. In fact, even the Swiss Guard itself has no record of what the uniform looked like. Thus, it is assumed that as mercenaries, they wore whatever was provided by their sponsor. Accordingly, the colourful uniform worn today is designed to be similar in appearance to a formal dress uniform worn in the sixteenth century. It has been in use since 1914 and was designed by the condottiere. Today, each is hand sewn by the Vatican's tailor.

The colours chosen represent the colours of the house of Médici (yellow and blue), as well as the prinicpal colour of the Swiss cantons (red). These colors are run in a gestreift pattern throughout the fabric which is loose and flowing, especially around the elbows and knees; this is to permit freedom of motion. In order to make the pattern, 154 pieces of fabric are needed. Each must be custom tailored for the guard. In total, the wool uniform weighs nearly eight pounds. Additionally, the uniform includes an armoured breastplate and metal helmet for one occasion: the annual swearing-in of the new guards. Otherwise, only a black beret is worn.

Becoming a Swiss Guard

Selection for the Papal Swiss Guard is very stringent, and is not competitive. One does not apply to become a Swiss Guard. In fact, the Pope only has the right to select the Condottiere of the guard. Otherwise, guards are referred by the Pope's advisors from among those who request to become guards to church officials representing the dioceses of the original Swiss Confederation. For a recruit, certain requirements exist:

  • A Swiss citizen, although not necessarily by birth
  • Roman Catholic faithful
  • Unmarried
  • Of the ages of 19 to 30
  • At least 174 centimeters tall
  • Attended the military school in Switzerland
  • Be of upstanding reputation, and of a good moral, ethical background
  • In possession of at least a professional diploma or a high school degree
Upon selection to the Swiss Guard, new recruits take their oath of loyalty on 6 May, the anniversary of the sack of Rome. Collectively, the Swiss Guard is in full dress uniforms, including armor, swords and halberts. All take the first of two oaths, delivered by the Chaplain of the Guard:
I swear I will faithfully, loyally and honourably serve the Supreme Pontiff John Paul II and his legitimate successors, and also dedicate myself to them with all my strength, sacrificing if necessary also my life to defend them. I assume this same commitment with regard to the Sacred College of Cardinals whenever the See is vacant. Furthermore I promise to the Commanding Captain and my other superiors, respect, fidelity and obedience. This I swear! May God and our Holy Patrons assist me!

Next, each new recruit takes the second oath, holding the flag representing the guard, and with three fingers skyward to represent the Trinity.
I swear I will observe faithfully, loyally and honourably all that has now been read out to me! May God and his saints assist me!

At this point, the recruit has become a member of the guard, and is now committed to at least two years of standing guard at the gates of the Vatican City and serving as a protector of the Pope before returning to the Swiss military.