The Swiss Guard: From Mercenaries To Pope Protectors

by Lindsay Shapka in , ,


Like the Queens Guard, standing serious and at constant attention outside of Buckingham palace, the Swiss Guard stands in full (colourful) uniform outside of the Vatican buildings with the sole purpose of keeping the Pope safe. 

During the 1400’s and 1500’s Switzerland was an incredibly poor, overpopulated country and unable to support themselves at home, thousands of Swiss men would hire themselves out as mercenary soldiers. The use of revolutionary battle tactics made them the most powerful army of the 15th century and because they had a reputation for being courageous, noble and loyal they were an integral part of wars in France, Spain and Italy. 

The modern day Swiss Guard, the ‘military’ of Vatican City, is the smallest active army in the world and has been responsible for the safety of the Pope since 1506 when Pope Julius II invited them to Rome himself.

They are now the only military regimen that exists at the Vatican for both ceremonial and active roles. (They once shared these roles with the Palatine Guard and Noble Guard that were both disbanded in 1970 under Paul VI) There are usually between 100-150 members, who act as body guards, ceremonial guards and palace guards, present in Vatican City at all times.

Becoming a member of this elite army is no easy feat… you must be Swiss, catholic, single, male between the ages of 19-30, have basic training in the Swiss military, have a professional degree or high school diploma, obtain certificates of good conduct, and be at least 5ft 8.5in tall. (Whew!) If you have every single one of these characteristics and pass the application process, you will be sworn in on May 6 (the Anniversary of the Sack of Rome) and pledge your loyalty and life to the Pope for a term that can last anywhere from 2-25 years.

They are the only military regimen that exists at the Vatican for both ceremonial and active roles.

Their uniforms are so close to costume that many visitors assume that the men inside of them are actors on display for their benefit, rather than real soldiers. Looking like they stepped out of a Renaissance painting, the official uniform is composed of bright blue, red, orange and yellow, the colors of the Medici family (the wealthy Renaissance family from Florence). Weighing 8lbs, it may be the heaviest uniform in use for any standing army and is by far the most complicated to construct-154 pieces, 32 hours, 3 fittings.