Wednesday, August 16, 2017

The Swiss Guard

Officially founded in 1506, the Swiss Guard has been protecting the Bishops of Rome for more than 600 years. Over those 600 years the Guard has held off invasions, fought the Pope's wars, and acted as the Pope's private security force. Today they're the smallest army in the world. Despite their size, the Guard has an illustrious history, and hangs on to many of its traditions, including it's colorful uniforms.

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Pope Francis inspecting the Guard
You wouldn't guess it from Pope Francis, but historically, Pope's didn't usually turn the other cheek. Sure, some performed miracles and invented important things like calendars, but more maneuvered and schemed to keep secular power as well as spiritual power over Europe, even going as far as to send large amounts of armed forces to support their interests. Popes had enormous political power over Europe from the early CEs until shortly after the Reformation, and they needed the forces to back it up. So in 1506 Pope Julius II hired a group of the fiercest fighters in Europe--Swiss mercenaries.

Now, while today's Swiss army may be a hot, incompetent, mess, they were pretty good in the 1500s. Contingents of Swiss mercenaries protected the Kings of France and Spain, and fought for other Italian states as well. Given that the Swiss Cantons were overcrowded, the Swiss government was more than okay with these arrangements. Swiss mercenaries were known, not only for their fighting expertise, but for their loyalty, and when Pope Julius II hired them, they permanently attached themselves to the Vatican.

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The 1527 Sack of Rome
One of the Guard's finest hours was during the Sack of Rome of 1527 by Spanish mercenaries. 147 guards held off a force of 20,000 men long enough for Pope Clement to escape the Vatican. Out of the 189 members of the guard, only the 42 who accompanied the Pope survived.


Members of the Guard are instantly recognizable while on duty. They wear brightly colored red, yellow, and blue uniforms, which would only work as camouflage if they were hiding in a crayola factory. On formal occasion they add 1500s style armor, including morian style helmets with large red or purple feathers. Though their uniform is designed on the clothing the guard would have worn in the 1500s, and done up in the traditional color of the Medici family, the current uniforms were actually designed in 1914. The guards carry halberds--a seven foot long pole arm--on duty, as per tradition, but are also armed with more modern weapons.

Today the Guard are instrumental in protecting the Pope on his travels, watch over visitors to the Vatican, and to watch over the safety of Vatican City. The guard is only open to Swiss males between ages 19 and 30 who are practicing Catholics. While in the guard, guards are required to take an oath of celibacy, as well as swearing to be morally upright at all times.

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Sources
Pontifical Swiss Guard
The Pope's Private Army
Swiss Guard History


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