Swiss soldiers have long maintained a sterling international reputation for discipline and loyalty. Since the late 15th century, rulers throughout Europe have recruited them as bodyguards, ceremonial guards and palace guards. The Swiss Guard, as the group is called, found a place in the royal courts of France, Prussia, Austria, the Netherlands and several other nations.

The Pontifical Swiss Guard — the only guards of this type still in existence — have served as papal defenders for more than five centuries. Since 1506, these guardians have protected 42 popes and their home in the Vatican, the Apostolic Palace.

It was Pope Julius II (r. 1503-1513) who first asked Swiss leadership to provide a corps of brave men to protect him and the Vatican. Having once been bishop of Lausanne, Switzerland, he was well acquainted with the qualities of Swiss soldiers.

The first contingent of 150 soldiers set out marching to Rome in September 1505. They arrived Jan. 2, 1506, now considered the official date of the founding of the Guard.

Laying Down Their Lives

These troops were to become, in the words of Pope Julius II, the “Defenders of the Church’s Freedom.”

In 1527, the Pontifical Swiss Guard experienced their first and most significant hostile engagement. On May 6, 147 of the 189-member corps died defending Pope Clement VII during the sack of Rome by Emperor Charles V of Spain. The last stand of these brave men, massacred on the steps of St. Peter’s Basilica, allowed the remaining guards to escort the Pope as he escaped to safety.

Members of the Swiss Guard annually renew their vows of allegiance on the anniversary of this event in a ceremony in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican. Initiates in full armor with crimson-plumed helmets raise three fingers of their right hand to symbolize the Trinity, swearing to serve the pope “to the death”.

Roles and Uniforms

The elite papal corps is composed of approximately 100 young Swiss Catholics (men ages 19 to 30), who have completed mandatory Swiss military service. The Cohors Helvetica (which is their Latin title) has a commander and five officers, including a chaplain.

Barracks and apartments in Vatican City provide housing, and the Guard has its own chapel. Members are allowed to marry if a Vatican City apartment is available. During their tenure in Vatican City, they are considered Vatican citizens.

In 1970, Pope Paul VI disbanded the Vatican’s Palatine Guard and Noble Guard, and the ceremonial duties of these units were assumed by the Swiss Guard. Though their role is, today, primarily ceremonial, the Swiss Guard remain a specially trained security force — the smallest standing army in the world, and one of the oldest regiments.

The recruits sign on for a minimum of two years. Their duties include guarding the pope, controlling the entries to Vatican City, and guarding the Apostolic Palace. They can often be seen as honor guards at special ceremonies.

The design of their distinctive multicolored uniforms has been attributed to the Renaissance artist Michelangelo, but it was actually created by a commandant of the guards. These colorful uniforms were worn for the first time in 1914.

The Renaissance-style costumes have puffed sleeves and knickerbockers striped red, blue and yellow. The uniforms are produced by the Guard’s tailor shop in the Porta Sant’Anna barracks.

They wear armor and helmets plumed with ostrich feathers, and they carry halberds. (The halberd is a weapon that is part spike and part battle-ax, mounted on a six-foot handle.)

No historical descriptions are available of the uniforms worn before 1914. Presumably, earlier guards wore tunics similar to those of the soldiers today, perhaps with the white cross of Switzerland or the papal crossed keys sewn on their chest.

Swiss Guard members are posted at all the gates into Vatican City. Another stands watch, holding his halberd aloft, at Bernini’s bronze doors, the main entrance to the Apostolic Palace and the pope’s residence. Guards are also posted in the Paul VI Audience Hall for papal audiences, where they stand at attention amid the visitors.

The Guard is a favorite subject of tourists taking photographs, who typically know little more about them than their ceremonial roles. Yet they stand ready, as always, to defend to the death the reigning pope and his successors.

Annie Laura Smith’s publications include historical, inspirational and scientific articles, and three historical novels (“The Legacy of Bletchley Park,” “Will Paris Burn?” and “Saving da Vinci”) for young readers.