There are several concepts closely associated with Switzerland: cheese, watches, banks and guards. But if the involvement of the first three in a small mountainous country is still clear, then what does the military have to do with it? Are the Swiss really that belligerent? True, history is silent about their high-profile victories on the battlefields. So why are the Swiss guards entrusted with protecting the Vatican? Let’s understand this interesting story.
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How was the Swiss Guard born?
The history of the Middle Ages is a series of continuous internecine wars, in which, surprisingly, even the Popes took an active part. Those countries that had no predatory intentions generously supplied their citizens in the form of mercenaries to the warring parties. The demand for such a product did not decline. Pope Julius II thought not only about serving the Lord, but also about expanding the influence of his state.
And it was difficult to do this without the military. The pontiff needed his army – loyal, brave and courageous. Julius II drew attention to the Swiss. Mercenaries from this country participated in wars throughout Europe, and their qualities were appreciated. The Pope turned to the inhabitants of the canton of Uri and asked them to provide him with soldiers to form a personal guard. A reception was held in honor of the 150 Swiss who arrived at the Vatican on January 22, 1506. And the soldiers received the blessing of the pontiff. This is how the Swiss Guard, the oldest army in the world today, was born.
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Did the Swiss Guards fight?
Do not think that the functions of this mini-troop have always been exclusively representative. The same XVI century was marked by the numerous wars of the Holy Roman Empire. Ironically, Rome itself was not included in it. The imperial mercenaries, on their own, in 1527 turned their attention to the capital of the Papal States. The pontiff himself, Clement VII, was actively involved in foreign policy, and at that moment Rome was practically defenseless. The imperial army with the rabble who joined it laid siege to the city. He was defended by only 5,000 militias, and Clement VII himself was protected by the Swiss guard loyal to him, consisting of 189 soldiers.
The outcome of the battle was obvious, but the guards took an unequal battle, although they received orders from Switzerland to return home. On the steps of St. Peter’s Cathedral, 147 defenders of the throne perished. Those who remained escaped and helped Clement VII escape through a secret passage. This day became a landmark for the Swiss Guard. This is why the recruits are sworn in on May 6th.
The guards were also ready to join the battle in 1944, when the Nazis entered Rome. The Swiss were ready to fight to the last drop of their blood for the Vatican. Fortunately, this was not necessary – the Wehrmacht decided not to arrange a senseless massacre.
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Uniforms and weapons of the Swiss guards
In what form the guardsmen originally served – there is no information anymore. For the clothes of the soldiers, funds were allocated from the papal treasury, which may nevertheless testify to a certain uniformity. And already in the 17th century, their own uniforms appeared. Then the guards wore long stockings, boots with buckles, wide trousers with ribbons, wide padded sleeves and fitted jackets. Over time, clothing ceased to need efficiency – the guardsmen had not fought for a long time. But it should have been spectacular – after all, the soldiers defended the Pope himself!
In 1914, the 24th commander of the guard, Jules Repont, decided to disguise his soldiers. The Colonel was inspired by the frescoes by Raphael Santi. The new costume was in the spirit of the Renaissance, but pretentious elements were removed, and a much more practical beret took the place of the hat.
Today there are three types of uniform: work, everyday and ceremonial (it is also divided into two types: gala and grand gala).
Casual and dress uniform of the Swiss guard
If the composition of the ceremonial gala costume includes striped blue-yellow-red camisoles and trousers grabbed under the knees, takes with a red plume, and in special cases a carapace, halberd and sword, then the cuirass is included in the grand gala initially, like a white metal helmet.
Since 2018, these morions have been replaced with 3D printed plastic helmets of the same shape. The material is cheaper, lighter, and better protects against ultraviolet radiation.
The casual uniform is blue. It is a beret, a camisole with wide arms, wide trousers tucked into leggings, and black boots. Such clothing is worn by guardsmen on drill or during service in their internal premises. Work clothes have little in common with the Renaissance – the usual gray overalls with belts for weapons.
The traditional weapons of the guards were spears or halberds, but in the 20th century they, of course, became obsolete. The already mentioned Jules Repont gave his wards rifles and pistols. But in 1970 Pope Paul VI not only dismissed all the Vatican military except the Swiss, but also forbade them to carry firearms. Over time, the ban was lifted. And although soldiers with firearms cannot be found on the streets of the Vatican, they are worn covertly when necessary to accompany the Pope.
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How do I join the Swiss Guard?
Today 110 people are serving in this army. This is a prestigious job. You will hardly see anywhere an ad for the recruitment of the Swiss guard. First of all, because only the Swiss can get there. But this is far from the only requirement. The candidate must have a Catholic religion, because the head of the Church will have to defend. A recruit must be physically strong and healthy, be at least 174 centimeters tall.
All guardsmen must have an impeccable reputation and experience in military training in Switzerland. The military is required to have a specialized secondary education. Single men aged 19 to 30 are accepted into the service. Guards can only marry a Catholic woman and only with the special permission of the Pope. Interestingly, soldiers are not allowed to wear a beard, mustache or long hair.
The service life is from 2 to 25 years. All this time, the guardsmen receive a salary of 1,300 euros, which is not taxed. Soldiers acquire Vatican citizenship during their service. Guardsmen are provided with food, shelter and uniforms. 20 years of service entitles you to a pension. It is equal to the last salary paid.
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What are the Swiss Guards up to?
Obviously, the Vatican is not going to fight with anyone, and it could not. But the Swiss Guard has more than just image functions. In addition to participating in solemn ceremonies, soldiers still guard the Pope, engage in covert intelligence and anti-terror. The guards can be seen near the pontiff’s chambers, at the entrance to the Vatican, on the floors of the Apostolic Palace. Tall soldiers are present during Mass in St. Peter’s Cathedral, at diplomatic receptions and audiences. Guardsmen also help tourists by giving them background information and generally maintain order in a small city-country – crime is serious there!
Guardsmen live in a special corps, divided into three teams. One is on duty, the second is resting, and the third is ready to help if necessary. Every day one team replaces another. But during significant festivities or audiences, all the guards can go into service at once.