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Why do the Swiss guard the Vatican?

Swiss guards are known for their iconic multi-coloured garb.
Swiss Guards at the Vatican have been protecting popes since 1506, but not always dressed in their medieval uniform. Photo by ANDREAS SOLARO / AFP
It may be unusual for a neutral nation to have a military presence abroad — even if it is partially ceremonial — but there is a historic reason why the Swiss are protecting the Pope.

The mere mention of “Vatican guards” brings up images of iconic yellow, red and blue uniforms, plumed helmets, pikes, and swords.

How did such extravagantly outfitted men, who look more like court jesters than soldiers ,and carrying medieval weapons that would be useless in modern warfare, come to guard the Pope?

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And why did the Vatican outsource this job to the Swiss?

The answer to this question lies in the Middle Ages, when Switzerland, or Helvetia as it was then known, was a poor rural country.

To earn money, many young men became mercenaries engaged in armed combat, fighting on the side of those who paid them the most. Others were hired as guards for European monarchs and nobility.

Swiss soldiers were very popular during the Renaissance as the word of their discipline and military skills spread across Europe, which was engaged in many bloody conflicts at the time.

Roman scholar Tacitus once commented on the military might of the Swiss, saying “the Helvetians are a people of warriors, famous for the valour of their soldiers”

Having heard of the Swiss mercenaries’ famed valour and skills on the battlefield, Pope Julius II hired 150 of them in 1506  to defend him and his palaces.

The guards proved their mettle two decades later when they defended Pope Clement VII during the Sack of Rome on May 6th, 1527 — so named after the Spanish, German, and Italian troops literally attacked the city of Rome.

During that battle, 147 Swiss Guards were killed, but the remaining 22 managed to escort the Pope from his residence at Castel Sant’ Angelo.

In a bloody coup in 1527, Swiss Guards defended the Pope and Casel Sant’Angelo. Photo by Vincenzo PINTO / AFP

In remembrance of this occasion, new Guard recruits are sworn in every year on May 6th.

Today there are 130 Swiss Guards at the Vatican, and their daily duties include such tasks as desk duty and directing traffic in front of the entrance to the Vatican — they do this while wearing a plain blue uniform rather than their ceremonial Renaissance garb so as not to distract traffic.

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Contrary to popular belief, they are not equipped with standard issue Swiss army knives.

These days they are equipped with modern weapons and are skilled in using them — just as many Swiss people are.

In fact, these Guards really are soldiers and they really are Swiss.

Service of at least two years in Switzerland’s military is one of the main perquisites for the job, while they must have Swiss citizenship in order to serve. 

They must also be at least 175 cm tall, be unmarried, be practicing Catholics and present a certificate from their parish testifying to their moral character and regular attendance at mass.

In addition, a letter is needed from each candidate’s local authority certifying that he has been an upstanding member of the community.

Most guards stay at the Vatican for about two years before returning to Switzerland.


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