Little Bits of History

Pontifical Swiss Guards

Posted in History by patriciahysell on January 22, 2011

Pontifical Swiss Guards inside St. Peter's Basilica

January 22, 1506: Pope Julius II welcomes 150 Swiss mercenaries to the Vatican as his new army and bodyguard contingent. Helveticans, another name for the Swiss of the Cantons region, were known in ancient Roman times as honorable, valiant warriors. The Pope needed to remain safe in a hostile world. Italy was ravaged by waves of outside wars, the country was not a unified entity, and the Pope and Vatican City were in the middle of it all. The previous Pope had looked into hiring mercenaries and had barracks built, so the new arrivals had housing upon their entry into service.

The Swiss Cantons were an overcrowded area with 500,000 inhabitants, many living in poverty. The way out was to enlist as a mercenary. The Confederation of Cantons organized 15,000 men who shipped out to various areas of conflict for summer battles and returned home in the winters, paid for their efforts. They were much in demand because of an innovative attack maneuver that was highly effective.

Today’s Pontifical Swiss Guard, dressed in the distinct multicolored uniform, must meet stringent requirements before even being considered for the job. The successful candidate must be a Swiss male, 19-30 years old, Catholic, at least 174 cm [5’ 9”] tall, who has completed military training, and must be celibate for at least the first three years. After that time, he may marry if he has attained a rank of corporal, is at least 25 years of age, and will sign on for another three years of service. Pay for the guards starts at $942/month with housing, food, and insurance included. A full contingency of Swiss Guards is 120, but today there are only around 100 men.

Rome was sacked on May 6, 1527 when Spanish King Charles V led an invasion against the city. The Swiss Guard, at a loss of 147 soldiers, managed to save Pope Clement VII and ensure his escape. The Spanish invaders occupied the Vatican caused much damage to buildings and artwork, and destroyed ancient manuscripts – using them as bedding for their horses. Each year on May 6, new recruits are enlisted and all Guards renew their vow to the Pope as his defender. They are more than window dressing serving a ceremonial duty, but are also the Pope’s only bodyguards. Alois Estermann protected Pope John Paul II when he jumped on the Popemobile and used his own body to shield the Pope during an assassination attempt in 1981.

“Among the many expressions of the presence of lay people in the Catholic Church, there is also the particular one of the Pontifical Swiss Guards, young men who motivated by love for Christ and church, put themselves at the service of the successor of Peter.” – Pope Benedict XVI

“The Pope is guarded by the Swiss Guard who stand proudly in pajamas and funny hats.” – Eddie Izzard

“The Pope? How many divisions has he got?” – Joseph Stalin

“I admire the Pope. I have a lot of respect for anyone who can tour without an album.” – Rita Rudner

Also on this day:
Roe v. Wade – In 1973, the Supreme Court decided on the abortion issue, assuring all women a right to privacy.
Bloody Sunday – In 1905, Russia’s Bloody Sunday took place.


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