The Vatican’s Swiss Guards

In 1929, the Vatican became its own country and like all countries, the Vatican has its own military. The Vatican is officially the smallest country in the world and the Vatican military is officially the smallest army in the world with just 135 soldiers (though this number varies throughout the last 500 years).

History of the Swiss Guards

The Papal guards are known as the Swiss Guard or the Pontifical Swiss Guard. They are not only the smallest armed force in the world but they are also the oldest. They were founded by Pope Julius II in 1506.

Pope Julius II, known as the warrior Pope, was elected Pope in 1503 and his main goal was to reclaim and enlarge the Papal lands. Having already served as bishop of Lausanne in Switzerland, he was well aware of the well-trained Swiss army. He had his own Swiss military march over the Alps from Switzerland to Rome to help provide protection and support future conquests. They arrived on the 22nd of January 1506 which is still today the official date for the founding of the Swiss Guards. 

Rome was sacked in 1527 by German and Spanish soldiers in retaliation for their poor living conditions and poor wages. The Swiss forces, however, remained loyal to the Pope. While trying to protect Pope Clement VII and bringing him to safety in Castel St. Angelo, 147 of 184 Swiss Guards died.

On the 6th of May each year to commemorate this event, there is a ceremony held for the Swiss Guard. This event also includes the swearing-in ceremony for new recruits who are joining the Swiss Guards.

Swiss Guards Today

There are several rules if you want to apply to serve as a Swiss Guard. You must be a Swiss citizen, you must have served in the Swiss military, you must be a practicing Catholic, you must be 5 foot 8 inches or more (174cm), you must be between the age of 19 and 30 years old and you must not be married.

The Swiss Guards can get married in the future while they are serving, but they must be over the age of 25 and they must have done more than their minimum requirement of 2 years and be made corporal. Once married, the Swiss Guards can have a family which means even that it is sometimes said the Vatican is the only country in the world with a zero birth rate, this is untrue. Married Swiss Guards can have children living inside the Vatican and these children will also be Vatican citizens. In fact, around 4% of the residents who live in the Vatican are children.

Seeing a Swiss Guard at the Vatican today can be a little surreal as they do not look like they are from our century. They have a very Renaissance look about them. It was even believed that Michelangelo Buonarotti designed their red, yellow and blue uniform that we see today but this theory is not true. However, Michelangelo was working for Pope Julius II in the Vatican, designing his tomb, when the Pope founded the Swiss Guards so this just a rumor.

The uniform as we see it today was designed by Jules Repond in the early 1900s. When you see the Swiss Guards on duty they hold the halberd which is a traditional ax like weapon.

Although it may seem that the Swiss Guard at the Vatican today is just a ceremonial job it is worth noting that the Swiss Guards go through a tough and rigorous daily routine including early mornings, daily drills and inspection. They are trained in hand to hand combat and are prepared to act in a way similar to the American secret service, also traveling abroad when the Pope leaves the Vatican.

When I gave tours of the Vatican I became friends with some of the Swiss Guards. Even though they lived a disciplined life they did have time to have fun. Their local hang out was my local Irish pub where they told me many stories about the inside workings of the Vatican and what it is like to have the chance to meet the Pope himself. I was even invited to see the quarters of the Swiss Guards where they lived and their military base which is not open to the general public. It was a once in a lifetime experience.

Photo by Pedro Mealha on Unsplash