Articles

This military unit has been guarding the Pope without a break for over 500 years


Swiss Guardsmen inside of St. Peter's Dome. (Photo: Wikipedia)

The Vatican Swiss Guard is primarily regarded as a tourist attraction, but they are actually descended from a famous military tradition and their duties are anything but just ceremonial.

Composed of a company of former Swiss military, the Swiss Guard are responsible for the protection of the Pope and perform many ceremonial functions as well. Though best known for their colorful uniforms and halberds, plainclothes Guardsmen also serve as bodyguards for the Pope and security for the Vatican.

Entrance requirements for the Guard is strict. Potential Guardsmen must be Catholic males, of Swiss nationality, and have completed Swiss military training. Their service records have to be spotless, and they must be at least 5' 9" tall and be between 19 and 30 years of age. Though the Guard has considered opening up positions for women, for now it's exclusively male.

The Guard's history stretches back to the Middle Ages. Swiss mercenaries, or Reislaufer, were among the most feared fighting forces of the late Middle Ages and Renaissance. Switzerland was an overpopulated and poor country, and its independent cantons would contract out its militia to other countries as a means of support.

Gaining their reputation with spectacular victories over their Austrian Habsburg overlords in the 13th century, the Swiss were famed for their skill in using pikes and halberds in deep column attacks. Their general refusal to take prisoners only added to their ferocious repute, and they became the most prized mercenaries in Europe.

Noted for their loyalty, Swiss mercenaries served as the bodyguard contingent for many European monarchs such as the French throne. During the storming of the Louis XVI's palace during the French Revolution, his Swiss Guard refused to surrender despite being hopelessly outnumbered and running low on ammunition. It took a note from the king himself for them to lay down their arms, and their spirited defense so enraged the revolutionaries hundreds of them were summarily executed.

Swiss Guards defending Louis XVI's palace during the French Revolution.

Swiss mercenaries had been serving the Papal States for centuries, but it wasn't until 1506 that a permanent Guard of 150 men under the direct control of the Pope was formed, at the suggestion of the Swiss bishop Matthaus Schiner. When mutinous unpaid troops from the Holy Roman Empire sacked Rome in 1527, the Swiss Guard proved their bravery by losing most of their number defending Pope Clement VII. Out of 189 men, only 42 survived, but they bought time for the Pope to escape through a secret tunnel ahead of marauding enemy soldiers hoping to hold him for ransom.

When German forces occupied Rome during World War II, the Guard took up defensive positions and prepared to fight to the death, but Adolf Hitler chose not to attack the Vatican.

The Guard gradually morphed into a mostly ceremonial unit during the later 20th century, but this changed with the assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II in 1981. Mehmet Agca, a Turkish national believed to have been backed by the KGB, shot the Pope four times as he entered St. Peters Square, nearly killing him. The Guard has since refocused as personal protection, with the pope's security detail beefed up and armed with light automatic weapons.

In 2006, the Guard celebrated its 500th anniversary by marching a contingent of former Guardsmen from Bellinzona in southern Switzerland to Rome, in emulation of the first Guards journey in 1505-06. Since Switzerland banned mercenaries in 1874 with the sole exception of the Vatican, this unit is the last remaining example of a storied line of soldiers.

 

 

Military Life

Why death iconography is a beloved part of military culture

Take a look at the naming convention of any combat arms battalion. Chances are that alpha company is "Assassins," bravo company is "Barbarians," and, because there's no clever, hardcore, historical fighter that starts with 'C,' charlie company will be "Reapers" or something.

Keep reading... Show less
Articles

How R. Lee Ermey's Hollywood break is an inspiration to us all

While there have been many outstanding actors and celebrities who have raised their right hand, there has never been a veteran who could finger point his way to the top of Hollywood stardom quite like the late great Gunnery Sergeant R. Lee Ermey.

Keep reading... Show less
GEAR & TECH

Why the Navy might buy new frigates from France or Italy

When the last of the Oliver Hazard Perry-class guided-missile frigates (FFGs) retired in 2015, the littoral combat ship (LCS) was expected to pick up the slack. Well, between mechanical failures and the fact that the LCS is under-armed, that hasn't happened.

As a result, the Navy has cut the LCS program down to 40 vessels and is now looking for a new generation of frigates. Two contenders for the FFG(X) program have surfaced, one from Lockheed based on the Freedom-class LCS and one from Spain based on the Álvaro de Bazán-class guided-missile frigates. There's a third contender, however, and it's also from Europe, based on the Franco-Italian FREMM.

Keep reading... Show less

How the US is falling behind China in this high-tech arms race

Mike Griffin, the undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, made some worrying admissions about China's growing military capabilities, and the US' decline in technological advances.

"Our adversaries have taken advantage of what I have referred to as a holiday for the United States," Griffin said April 18, 2018, referring to the West's victory over its communist rivals in the Cold War. The Pentagon official was speaking at a hearing for the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities.

Keep reading... Show less
History

The fascinating origin of a favorite gloating phrase

You've just proven yourself to the doubters and in your moment of triumph you turn and ask just one question: "How do you like them apples?" This phrase has been used for decades and has been made popular by films like Good Will Hunting and Rio Bravo, but where does it come from?

While many claim that the origin of this phrase is unknown, others claim that it comes straight from the trenches of World War I.

Keep reading... Show less
History

Macron will bring a 'Devil Dog' Marines tribute to the White House

French President Emmanuel Macron said April 22, 2018, that he is bringing a living tribute to "Devil Dog" Marines who fell in the World War I battle of Belleau Wood to the White House as a symbol of the two nations' enduring ties.

The oak sapling from the battle site will be presented to President Donald Trump in hopes that it will be planted in the White House garden, Macron said in an interview on the "Fox News Sunday" program from the Elysee Palace in Paris.

Keep reading... Show less
GEAR & TECH

6 of the most notable pre-M16 military guns

Throughout history, the U.S. Military has used a wide variety of guns to win its battles. Prior to the M16, there were several weapons used across the service throughout some of the most devastating wars the world has ever seen.

Here are some of those weapons:

Keep reading... Show less
International

China and the US could end up in a war – here's what would happen

It's unlikely that the U.S.-China trade dispute is going to escalate to a full-scale war any time soon — but it's not impossible. Neither side is inclined to go to war with the other, but a war of that scale is what both plan to fight. All it would take is one bungled crisis, one itchy trigger finger, one malfunctioning automated defense system and the entire region could become a war zone.

Keep reading... Show less