January 22 marks the anniversary of the Swiss Guards, founded under Pope Julius II. This year the Guards celebrate 515 years.
By Vatican News staff writer
It was Pope Julius II that founded the Swiss Guards in 1506. Often dubbed as “the world’s smallest army”, the Swiss guards – a separate entity to the Swiss Armed Forces – are hired by the Roman Catholic Church, under the leadership of the pope, to whom they swear loyalty in a ceremony at the Belvedere Court in the Vatican.
This ceremony takes place every year on 6 May – to mark the anniversary of the Sack of Rome in 1527, in which over 150 Swiss Guards were killed defending Pope Clement VII – who escaped to neighbouring Castel Sant’Angelo, escorted by the remaining 22 guards.
It is said that during the Middle Ages, Switzerland gained a reputation for having the most reliable mercenaries in Europe. Then Pope, Julius II, who had long admired the Swiss soldiers who defended the King of France, requested 200 Swiss mercenaries of his own to use as bodyguards and to defend his palaces. After months of marching, 150 swiss guards arrived in Rome on 21 January, 1506 to serve the Pope.
Swiss guards today
In 2015 the contingent was made bigger, from 110 guards to 135 to meet requests. Each recruit is required to complete, first of all, military training in Switzerland. This is followed by a five-week induction training course in Rome, and finally a period dedicated to training to use the primary weapons that the mercenaries used in the 16th century. After this, the guards are sworn in and their families are invited to a private audience with the Pope.
Along with the Pontifical Gendarmerie, the Swiss Guards are responsible for ensuring the safety of the Pope both within and outside the Vatican and for accompanying Pope Francis as he moves around among the people.