Various units of Swiss Guards have existed for hundreds of years. The earliest such detachment was the Swiss Hundred Guard' (Cent-Garde) at the French court (1497 – 1830). This small force was complemented in 1567 by a Swiss Guard regiment. The Papal Swiss Guard in the Vatican was founded in 1506 and is the only Swiss Guard that still exists. In the 18th century several other Swiss Guards existed for periods in various European courts.
There were two different corps of Swiss mercenaries performing guard duties for the Kings of France: the Hundred Swiss (Cent Suisses), serving within the Palace as essentially bodyguards and ceremonial troops, and the Swiss Guards (Gardes Suisses), guarding the entrances and outer perimeter. In addition the Gardes suisses served in the field as a fighting regiment in times of war.
The Hundred Swiss were created in 1496 by King Charles VIII. Their main role was the protection of the King indoors, what was called the garde du dedans du Louvre (the Louvre indoor guard), but in the earlier part of their history they accompanied the King on a war. In the Battle of Pavia (1525) the Hundred Swiss of King Francis I were slain before Francis was captured by the Spanish. They shared the indoor guard with the King's Bodyguards (Gardes du Corps), which were Frenchmen.
As a result of the Everlasting Peace between Switzerland and France declared in 1516, Swiss mercenaries played their most important roles in the military history of France. Francis I of France used some 120,000 Swiss mercenaries in his wars. In 1616 King Louis XIII gave a regiment of Swiss infantry the name of Gardes suisse (Swiss Guards). The new regiment had the primary role of protecting the doors, gates and outer perimeters of the various royal palaces. This unit was officially a regiment of the line, but it was generally regarded as part of the King's Military Household.
During the 17th and 18th centuries the Swiss Guards maintained a reputation for discipline and steadiness in both peacetime service and foreign campaigning. Their officers were all Swiss and their rate of pay substantially higher than that of the regular French soldiers. Internal discipline was maintained according to Swiss codes which were significantly harsher than those of the regular French Army.
By the 18th century the Swiss Guards were brigaded with the Regiment of French Guards (Gardes françaises), with whom they shared the outer guard, and were in peace-time stationed in barracks on the outskirts of Paris. Like the eleven Swiss regiments of line infantry in French service, the Gardes suisses wore red coats. The line regiments had black, yellow or light blue facings but the Swiss Guards were distinguished by dark blue lapels and cuffs edged in white embroidery. Only the grenadier company wore bearskins while the other companies wore the standard tricorn headdress of the French infantry. The Guards were recruited from all the Swiss cantons. The nominal establishment was 1,600 men though actual numbers normally seem to have been below this.
The most famous episode in the history of the Swiss Guards was their defense of the Tuileries Palace in central Paris during the French Revolution. Of the nine hundred Swiss Guards defending the Palace on August 10, 1792, more than six hundred were killed during the fighting or massacred after surrender. An estimated two hundred more died in prison of their wounds or were killed during the September Massacres that followed. Apart from about a hundred Swiss who escaped from the Tuileries, some hidden by sympathetic Parisians, the only survivors of the regiment were a 300 strong detachment which had been sent to Normandy to escort grain convoys a few days before August 10. The Swiss officers were mostly amongst those massacred, although Major Karl Josef von Bachmann in command at the Tuileries was formally tried and guillotined in September, still wearing his red uniform coat. Two Swiss officers did however survive and went on to reach senior rank under Napoleon.
There appears to be no truth in the charge that Louis XVI caused the defeat and destruction of the Guards by ordering them to lay down their arms when they could still have held the Tuileries. Rather, the Swiss ran low on ammunition and were overwhelmed by superior numbers when fighting broke out spontaneously after the Royal Family had been escorted from the Palace to take refuge with the National Assembly. A note has survived written by the King ordering the Swiss to retire from the Palace and return to their barracks but this was only acted on after their position had become untenable. The regimental standards had been secretly buried by the adjutant shortly before the regiment was summoned to the Tuileries on the night of August 9th, indicating that the likely end was foreseen. They were discovered by a gardener and ceremonially burned by the new Republican authorities.
The heroic but futile stand of the Swiss is commemorated by Bertel Thorvaldsen's Lion Monument in Lucerne, dedicated in 1821 and showing a dying lion collapsed across broken symbols of the French monarchy.
The French Revolution abolished mercenary troops in its citizen army, but Napoleon I and the Restoration Monarchy both made use of Swiss troops. Four Swiss infantry regiments were employed by Napoleon, serving in both Spain and Russia. Two of the eight infantry regiments included in the Garde Royale from 1815 to 1830 were Swiss and can be regarded as successors of the old Gardes suisses. When the Tuileries were stormed again, in the July Revolution (July 29, 1830), the Swiss regiments, fearful of another massacre, were withdrawn or melted into the crowd. They were not used again. In 1832 disbanded veterans of the Swiss regiments and another foreign unit, the Legion de Hohenlohe, were recruited into the newly raised French Foreign Legion for service in Algeria.
The Swiss constitution, as amended in 1874, forbade all military capitulations and recruitment of Swiss by foreign powers, although volunteering in foreign armies continued until prohibited outright, in 1927.
Swiss Guard units similar to the French ones existed at several other courts in the 18th century as well.
The Corps of the Pontifical Swiss Guard or Swiss Guard (Ger: Schweizergarde, Ital. Guardia Svizzera Pontificia, Lat. Pontificia Cohors Helvetica, or Cohors Pedestris Helvetiorum a Sacra Custodia Pontificis) is something of an exception to the Swiss rulings of 1874 and 1927. It is a small force responsible for the safety of the Pope, including the security of the Apostolic Palace and access to the entrances to the Vatican City. Its official language is Swiss German. It serves as the de facto if not de jure military of the Vatican City.
The force has varied greatly in size over the years and has even been disbanded. Its first, and most significant, hostile engagement was on May 6, 1527 when 147 of the 189 Guards, including their commander, died fighting the unruly troops of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V during the Sack of Rome in order to allow Clement VII to escape through the Passetto di Borgo, escorted by the other 40 guards. The last stand battlefield is located on the left side of St Peter's Basilica, close to the Campo Santo Teutonico (German Graveyard).
The Swiss Guard has served the popes since the 1500s. Ceremonially, they shared duties in the Papal household with the Palatine Guard and Noble Guard, both of which were disbanded in 1970 under Paul VI. Today the Papal Swiss Guard have taken over the ceremonial roles of the former units. At the end of 2005, there were 134 members of the Swiss Guard. This number consisted of a Commandant (bearing the rank of "oberst" or Colonel), a chaplain, three officers, one sergeant major ("feldweibel"), 30 NCOs, and 99 "halberdiers", the rank equivalent to private (so called because of their traditional Halberd).
Recruits to the guards must be Catholic, single males with Swiss citizenship who have completed basic training with the Swiss military and can obtain certificates of good conduct. New recruits must have a professional diploma or high school degree and must be between 19 and 30 years of age and at least 174 cm (5'8.5") tall.
Qualified candidates must apply to serve. If accepted, new guards are sworn in every May 6 in the San Damaso Courtyard (Italian: Cortile di San Damaso) in the Vatican. (May 6 is the anniversary of the Sack of Rome.) In 2008 the ceremony took place in the presence of the head of the Swiss army. The chaplain of the guard reads aloud the oath in the language of the guard (mostly German, some French, a little Italian):
When his name is called, each new guard approaches the Swiss Guard's flag, grasping the banner in his left hand. He raises his right hand with his thumb, index, and middle finger extended along three axes, a gesture that symbolizes the Holy Trinity, and speaks:
The term of service is between 2 and 25 years.
The official dress uniform is of blue, red, orange and yellow with a distinctly Renaissance appearance. While usually attributed to Michelangelo, Commandant Jules Repond (1910-1921) created the current uniforms in 1914. While the uniforms of the Swiss Guard bearing Pope Julius II on a litter (painted by Raphael) is often cited as inspiration for the Swiss Guard uniform, the actual uniforms worn by those soldiers are of the style which appears by today's standards as a large skirt, a common style in uniforms during the Renaissance. A very clear expression of the modern Swiss Guard uniform can be seen in a 1577 fresco by Jacob Coppi of the Empress Eudoxia conversing with Pope Sixtus III. It is clearly the precursor of today's recognizable three-colored uniform with boot covers, white gloves, a high or ruff collar, and either a black beret or a black Comb morion (silver for high occasions). Sergeants wear a black top with crimson leggings, while other officers wear an all-crimson uniform.
The regular duty uniform is more functional, consisting of a simpler solid blue version of the more colorful tri-color grand gala uniform, worn with a simple brown belt, a flat white collar and a black beret. For new recruits and rifle practice, a simple light blue overall with a brown belt may be worn. During cold or inclement weather, a dark blue cape is worn over the regular uniform. The original colors (blue and yellow) were issued by Pope Julius II taking his family (Della Rovere) colors, Pope Leo X added the red to reflect his family's Medici colors.
Headwear is typically a black beret for daily duties, while a black or silver morion helmet with red, white, yellow and black, and purple ostrich feather is worn for ceremonial duties, the former for guard duty or drill; the latter for high ceremonial occasions such as the annual swearing in ceremony or reception of foreign heads of state.
The tailors of the uniforms work inside the Swiss Guard barracks. The Renaissance style uniform weighs 8 pounds, and may be the heaviest uniform in use by any standing army today. They are also the most complicated to construct, one uniform takes 32 hours to complete.
Besides their traditional arms the Swiss Guard also has contemporary non-ceremonial small arms like SIG P225 pistols and SIG SG 550 assault rifles at its disposal for security duties. These small arms are also in use by the Swiss military. The Guard also engages in yearly rifle competition and receives self-defense instruction, as well as basic instruction on defensive bodyguard tactics similar to those used in the protection of many heads of state.
On May 4, 1998, the Swiss Guard experienced one of its greatest scandals for over 100-years when the commander of the Guard, Alois Estermann was murdered in unclear circumstances in the Vatican City. According to the official Vatican version, Estermann and his wife, Gladys Meza Romero, were killed by the young Swiss Guard Cédric Tornay, who later committed suicide. Estermann had been named commander of the Swiss Guard the same day.
Also on parade at this event were the Company of Pikeman and Musketeers of the Honourable Artillery Company of London. The Band and Corps of Drums of the HAC also provided musical support, and HAC members attended as guests.
Swiss Guards preparing to celebrate 500 years in service of the pope with historic march to Rome from Switzerland
May 04, 2004; NICOLE WINFIELD, Associated Press Writer AP Worldstream 05-04-2004 Dateline: VATICAN CITYThe Swiss Guards are gearing up to mark...