in area and populated by fewer than 1000 residents, Vatican City is the smallest independent state in existence—Europe’s last absolute monarchy. Its ruler, the Pope, has a lifelong reign. Since 1506, his personal safety has been the sole responsibility of the loyal and distinguished Swiss Guard. With close to 500 years of continuous service, these guards are one of the oldest standing regiments in the world.
During the 15th century Swiss mercenaries first rose to prominence in the service of King Charles VIII of France. They were notorious throughout Europe for their tactics, discipline and grim demeanor. Much of their reputation relied on a novel wedge-formation the Swiss employed to pierce standard defensive lines when attacking in the offensive. Considered by all a radical military tactic in the early Renaissance.
As needed, various crowned heads of state would commission Swiss mercenaries, including the armies of the Papacy who employed them as early as the late 1300’s. Yet, it wasn’t till January 21, 1506, that Pope Julius II contracted the first permanent group of Swiss Guards to be under his direct charge. Known in Latin as Cohors Helvetica, they soon proved their worth.
It was during Charles V’s 1527 Sack of Rome that the guards quantified their bravery and self-sacrifice. As Charles’ troops attacked the Vatican Palace, Swiss Guards leapt to action and fervently ushered Pope Clement VII out of the palace and along the Passetto, a passage built on top of the medieval wall leading to the Castel Sant’Angelo. Grossly outnumbered, they valiantly fought off oncoming troops. One hundred and forty-seven of the 200 guardsmen lost their lives in this bloody episode to secure the Pope’s escape. Once in the confines of the castle, the remaining guards continued to hold back the invaders for 40 days.
Every May 6, in commemoration of this event, guards renew their vows as new initiates swear an oath. In a resplendent ceremony recruits kneel, pike in left hand, right hand raised with the thumb and two fingers outstretched, as they pledge an oath to the service of the Pope and his rightful successors till death, if required.
Little commemorates their vigilance and few tourists are aware of the Swiss Guard’s long and distinguished service. Guidebooks talk only of their garb... “Rumored to be of Michelangelo’s or even Raphael’s hand, their vividly striped uniforms, date to 1548 and bear the colors of the Medici family: bright blue, yellow and red. Produced by the guard’s tailor shop in the Porta Sant’Anna barracks, each uniform consists of 119 separate pieces."