3 October 2015

Why does the Vatican have a Swiss Guard?

Late in the Middle Ages, it became a tradition to recruit Swiss mercenaries as special military units.
Frans Willem Lantink
dr. mr. Frans Willem Lantink, International and Political History
©iStock.com/apomares Twee leden van de Zwitserse Garde
Two members of the Swiss Guard. Photo: ©iStock.com/apomares

Medieval tradition

The origins of the Swiss Guard date back over five hundred years. Late in the Middle Ages, it became a tradition to recruit Swiss mercenaries as special military units. The Swiss soldiers were famous for their military professionalism.

Special bodyguards for monarchs

These Swiss regiments were often deployed as special bodyguards for monarchs, such as the king of France. The Swiss Guard in France fell defending King Louis XVI, the last king of France, in the centre of Paris in 1792. The last Swiss regiments in the Netherlands were disbanded by King Willem I in 1829.

The only Swiss Guard that is still active today

The Swiss Guard of the Vatican is the only Swiss Guard that is still active today. The unit was founded by Pope Julius II in 1506. Many guards died protecting a later pope during the looting of Rome of 1527 (commemorating the anniversary of this 'martyrdom' has since become a tradition).

The tradition of a personal guard is preserved. 

Until 1860, popes were also the secular rulers of Central Italy and had their own armies. This papal land ownership was lost in the unification of Italy, with the exception of the city of Rome. Today, Vatican City is a sovereign city state. The tradition of a personal guard for the head of state, the pope, is preserved. This guard still consists of young Swiss - Catholic - men up to age 30.