The pontifical Swiss Guard. History, trade and curiosities

Every May 6, the new members of the Swiss Guard swear an oath of loyalty to the Pope, even at the cost of their own lives. On that day in 1527, 147 guards died protecting Pope Clement VI during the sack of Rome by the troops of Charles V.

Alejandro Vázquez-Dodero-August 1, 2022-Reading time: 4 minutes
Swiss Guards

They are perhaps the most photographed guards in the world. Their colorful uniforms and their unperturbed faces attract the curiosity of those who come across them at the Vatican. The privilege of guarding the Pope is not easy. Among the requirements that must be met by those who want to be part of this corps are to be Catholic, at least 1.74 meters tall, and have a certificate of good conduct. 

What is the Swiss Guard and what are its competences?

The Pontifical Swiss Guard is a military corps in charge of the security of the Pope and the Holy See. Organically it is an army - the smallest in the world - with just over 100 members. 

Its head is the Roman Pontiff, sovereign of the Vatican City State. It also has a commander with the rank of colonel, the highest military authority of the corps; a vice-commander with the rank of lieutenant-colonel; a chaplain with the rank of lieutenant-colonel; an officer with the rank of commander; three officers with the rank of captain; and the rest are non-commissioned officers and soldiers or "halberdiers".

Like any military corps, it has training systems and procedures for training in tactics and weapons handling. In addition, the Swiss Guard is instructed in the use of the sword and halberd - we will explain their significance below - and is trained as bodyguards for the protection of heads of state.

It controls the four gates of the Vatican: the Holy Office, the Arch of Bells, the Bronze Gate and St. Anne's Gate, where its headquarters are located.

Within the Vatican City State, the majority of the territory is under the responsibility of the so-called "surveillance corps", composed of a little more than a hundred agents from the police or the Carabinieri, distributed throughout the Vatican gardens, the heliport, the museums and other places requiring special vigilance. This body, in coordination with the Swiss Guard, ensures the security of the Holy See. The Swiss Guard specifically protects the Apostolic Palace and the person of the Holy Father.

Naturally, as is the case in any civilized country, the Swiss Guard It is therefore coordinating some of its functions with the Vatican police and the Italian security forces, given the geographical location of the Holy See, and with the authorities of the States and places where the Pope travels in order to achieve a more efficient and secure protection.

What is the genesis of the Swiss Guard?

The Swiss Guard was created at the beginning of the 16th century, when Pope Julius II asked the Swiss nobles for soldiers for his own protection. At that time the Swiss soldiers had a great reputation, demonstrated in the confrontations in the Burgundian wars.

What does the uniform of a Swiss guard look like?

The military uniform of the Swiss Guard is one of the oldest in the world. The current one was designed in the early twentieth century, and was inspired by the frescoes of Raphael. The colors match the livery of the Della Rovere house, to which the man who became Pope Julius II belonged.

It is composed of a morrion - a helmet that covered the head of the ancient knights, somewhat conical and with an almost sharp crest - decorated with a red or white feather depending on the military rank in question. It also has white gloves and breastplate.

The Swiss guard wears tights held at the knee by a golden garter and covered by gaiters depending on the weather and the occasion. This has the triple significance of showing the joy of being a soldier, of fighting and of being at the service of the Pope.

As for the weaponry carried by a Swiss guard, the halberd or sword, which is a medieval weapon similar to a spear, whose tip is pierced by a blade, sharp on one side and crescent-shaped on the other, stands out. Although, of course, the corps also has modern infantry weaponry, pistols, machine guns, submachine guns and assault rifles.

What are the requirements to become a Swiss guard and what is your daily life like?

Not just anyone can join the Pontifical Swiss Guard Corps. Only unmarried, Catholic, at least 1.74 meters tall, between 19 and 30 years of age, with a professional or high school degree, with Swiss citizenship and in possession of a basic training certificate in the Swiss Armed Forces with a certificate of good conduct. 

On our own website can learn more about what it means to be a Swiss guard and what are the requirements for membership in the corps.

Every May 6, the new recruits swear an oath of loyalty to the Pope, even at the cost of their own lives. On that day in 1527 147 guards died protecting Pope Clement VI during the sack of Rome by the troops of Charles V, and since then that is the date chosen for the entrance of the new candidates.

It is an office in which there is a certain rotation, so that those admitted spend a few years in the Holy See and after some time return to their countries of origin, usually Switzerland.

The life of a Swiss guard is a very normal life. Working days of about nine hours, and with holidays and vacations according to the rotation shifts. The basic monthly salaries are somewhat more modest than what an Italian soldier would earn.

In short, an ordinary life, in which, of course, everyone establishes their own social relationships and even - there are already several cases - there are marriages of Swiss Guardsmen with Italian fiancées whom they met precisely during their military tour in Vatican City.

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