The Swiss Times - Swiss News in English

Inside the world’s smallest army: The Swiss Guard

  • By Paige Baschuk
  • 14 September 2022

The Swiss Guard is unlike any army in the world, and it is much more than a Renaissance costume party.

Inside the world’s smallest army: The Swiss Guard

Red feathers denote sergeants and white feathers denote sergeant majors.

The world’s smallest army recently announced that it is recruiting 25 new members, but the qualifications for joining the Vatican’s Swiss Guard are narrow – credentials that have not changed much since they were established more than 500 years ago.

Millions of pilgrims are expected to may their way to Rome in 2025, considered a Holy Year by the Catholic Church. The Vatican is preparing by beefing up its ranks from 110 members to 135 and opening a new media office in Switzerland.

The Swiss Guard is not to be confused with the Swiss armed forces, which serve Switzerland. Nor is it to be confused with the Corps of Gendarmerie of Vatican City. The Swiss Guard is a unique army whose sole purpose is to protect the pope and the Vatican.

The Swiss Guard – aka the Pontifical Swiss Guard, or the Papal Swiss Guard – was established in 1506, during the Renaissance era, and so it is not only the smallest army but among the oldest military units still operating.

Inside the world’s smallest army: The Swiss Guard

The uniform on the left is what most Swiss guards wear for exercises and night duty. The more colorful outfit is for dress occasions.

Attractive attire

On any regular weekday, the guards wear blue doublets and blue berets. They are equipped with traditional weapons, such as the halberd (a two-handed pole) during ceremonies, as well as with modern firearms (SIGs, mostly) and an inconspicuous pepper spray.

But when it’s time to show off for ceremonies, they wear the colorful Renaissance-era uniforms with stripes in the colors of the Medici family (red, dark blue, and lots of yellow), white ruffs and high plumed helmets, with feathers colored according to rank. Sometimes, the armor comes out of the closet too.

Inside the world’s smallest army: The Swiss Guard

Vatican City is the world’s smallest country.

Why Swiss?

The Vatican says it does not keep Swiss guardsmen because it banks in Switzerland (which it does). Rather, there is a historical story behind their presence.

The Swiss Guard comes from a long line of itinerant Swiss soldiers with a reputation for fierceness. The ancient Roman scholar Tacitus had said of them, “The Helvetians are a people of warriors, famous for the valor of their soldiers.”

Throughout the bloody history of European wars, Swiss mercenaries served the ruling powers of many countries, especially France and Spain, with great gusto.

They began serving the papal states in the late 1400s, and since they served well – and benefited from a portion of national nepotism – in 1505, the then-bishop Matthaus Schiner from Switzerland proposed the creation of a permanent Swiss contingent. The first ever Papal guardsmen set up shop in the Vatican in January the following year.

They did not disappoint. They earned a reputation for self-sacrifice and bravery, as demonstrated during the sack of Rome in 1527 when all but 42 of the 189 guardsmen died defending Pope Clement VII. The Swiss Guards prepared for similar self-sacrifice during World War II, when they took up defensive positions as German forces rolled into Rome; Adolf Hitler, however, chose not to attack the Vatican. In 1981, Swiss guardsmen helped protect John Paul II during an assassination attempt in St. Peter’s Square.

Inside the world’s smallest army: The Swiss Guard

After a papal assassination attempt in 1981, the Swiss Guard beefed up their security of the Pope.

But Switzerland is not Catholic, right?

You may wonder why an outwardly protestant country would propose its men to protect the Pope and Vatican. This question has been a well-founded one, especially considering that the formation of the Papal Guard occurred as protestant leader Jean Calvin was making his historical mark on the Swiss population.

When the Old Swiss Confederacy began to emerge in the 13th century, it was entirely Catholic. Then, in the 1500s, it became one of the centers of the Protestant Reformation and a majority of the Swiss joined the Protestant movement of Calvinism. This schism created civil wars between Protestants and Catholics which persisted until the 1850s.

Today, about 34 percent of Swiss identify as Catholic and 25 percent as Protestant, according to national statistics.

Inside the world’s smallest army: The Swiss Guard

This photo was taken during a Swiss Guard’s swearing-in ceremony (Vatican News).

Ups and downs through history

The force has varied greatly in size over the years and was sometimes disbanded (in 1799, 1809, 1848) and then, reconstituted. It was originally a military combat unit and its role became mostly that of the protection of the pope and of an Honour guard after the Italian Wars of the mid-1500s. The Swiss Guard declined in the late 19th century into a purely ceremonial body with low standards.

But along came Jules Repond, Swiss Guard commander from 1910-1921, who endeavoured to reform the unit to its former glory. The guardsmen reportedly did not like his new discipline and his new uniforms so they started a mutiny; but, undisciplined and badly-dressed as they were, it was unsuccessful.

When Vatican City became a modern sovereign state in 1929, the Papal police served to protect public order and security while the Swiss Guard served mostly ceremonial functions. But since the assassination attempt in 1981, a much stronger emphasis has been placed on the Swiss Guard’s non-ceremonial roles. It has developed into a modern guard corps equipped with small arms, and members of the Swiss Guard in plain clothes now accompany the pope on his travels abroad for his protection. In October 2019, the Swiss Guard reached a total of 135 men.

A scandal in the Vatican

Commander Alois Estermann, the plainclothes guardsman who rushed to the pope’s aid during the assassination attempt of 1981, became a hero and was named commander of the Swiss Guards in 1998.

The same day he was named commander, a young and disgruntled guardsman, Cédric Tornay, shot and killed Estermann and his wife before committing suicide. The case received considerable public attention and even became the subject of various conspiracy theories. British journalist John Follain wrote a book about it and concluded the motive was entirely personal.

Inside the world’s smallest army: The Swiss Guard

Swiss Guards during their annual celebration of successfully protecting the Pope during the Sack of Rome in 1527 (FDFA).

The Swiss Guard today

Sebastian Esai Eco Eviota, a 23-year-old Filipino who moved to Switzerland in 2009, has just joined the ranks of the Swiss Guard. His unusual lineage made the news in several outlets. Previous to that, he was a second lieutenant of the Swiss Army after two years of basic training. The 2022 recruits will take their oath on May 6, 2023.

As for preparing for 2025, the Swiss Guards have begun recruitments already.

Although the location has not been revealed, the Media and Liaison office will open in Switzerland under the eye of Stefan Wyer. The 57-year-old native of Visp has been working with the Swiss Guard for many years. In his new role, he will report directly to the Commander of the Swiss Guard, Christoph Graf, who reports to Pope Francis I.

This article may be freely shared and re-printed, provided that it prominently links back to the original article.

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