The history of the Swiss Guards, protecting the Pope for centuries

Swiss Guards, Vatican, Pope, Rome, Italian culture, Italian heritage, Italian american, Italian news, Italian traditions

A Swiss Guard recruit takes his oath during the swearing-in ceremony


Dear Readers,
An August assortment of Italian connections for you:
Swiss Guards have been protecting the Pope for centuries. When I first visited Italy in the 1950’s, I wondered aloud why, with all those Italians around, the Vatican was not hiring locally.
It turns out that long before Italy became a unified nation, Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527), Italian statesman and diplomatic representative of the Florentine State prior to 1512, when he was banished by political enemies and began his literary works on political science, The Art of War,  The History of Florence, The Prince, etc., had written that “Mercenaries and auxiliaries are useless and dangerous...for they are disunited, ambitious, undisciplined and treacherous...weak and cowardly when they are met by determined enemies; they have no fear of God and do not maintain commitments with men...”  
And it came to pass that in 1527, word reached the Vatican that Porta Portese and other walls constructed to protect the city from invasion, had been breached by the mutinous forces of Holy Roman EmperorCharles V, called “condottieri” they were soldiers for hire, by kings or princes (It may be remembered that even in Colonial America, when General George Washington crossed the Delaware during the American Revolutionary War to confront his enemies, they were not only British troops, but Hessians from Hesse, Germany, mercenaries used and paid for by Parliament and King George III).
Meanwhile back at the Vatican, the message was somber. The Vatican’s army of mercenaries then consisted of Swiss, French, Italian, Spanish and German units, all of which were ordered to prepare for the onslaught of Charles’ mutinous troops, mainly Spanish, who had not been paid and were hell bent on plundering and killing anyone who attempted to stop them.
The Commander of the Swiss contingent, Kaspar Roist, instructed his men to prepare to protect the pope at all costs; that was their duty and in doing so they would live up to their reputation: The Guard dies but he never surrenders.
  When the riotous and rebellious forces entered the area of the Borgo, the streets adjacent to St. Peter’s Square, fear and flight set in and most members of the Vatican’s army left their assigned posts and disappeared, as Machiavelli had predicted. There was no obstacle to the capture and ransom of the pope- but one.
Swiss contingent commander Roist ordered his men to escort Pope Clement VI out of the Vatican to the security of Hadrian’s tomb, today known as Castel Sant’Angelo, a fortress along the Tiber near the Apostolic Palace and reached through a passetto(passageway) which still may be seen today.
   The remaining 147, Roist included, took up positions designed to delay the advance of Charles’ mutinous troops, although the Swiss company’s numbers were dwarfed by their opponents. Roist would remain with them to the end. None of those 147 men survived. The Guard had lived up to its pledge.

The fulfillment and honoring of their oath to protect the pontiff, tried and tested in battle, has led every pope since Clement VI, who later returned to the Vatican safely, to place his faith, confidence, and life in the hands of the Swiss Guard. Nearly half a millennium later, that papal confidence has never wavered and today the Pope’s Swiss Guards are one of the most colorful sights in the Vatican.

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