The Pontifical Swiss Guard takes today’s date as the official date of its foundation. In September 1505 a contingent of 150 Swiss soldiers started their march towards Rome, under the command of Kaspar von Silenen, and entered the city on 22 January 1506 to take up their duties as the pope’s guard. Tourists to the Vatican are well aware of the guys who look like they might be refugees from a Renaissance Fayre. Don’t be fooled. These guys are not toy soldiers; they are the real deal. Furthermore, their swords and halberds are not toys either. They are razor sharp and the halberdiers know how to use them.
Swiss mercenaries were fierce and highly respected in 14th and 15th century Europe, somewhat in contrast with the general popular image of Switzerland as a nation of peace-loving clockmakers. Pope Sixtus IV (1471–1484) made an alliance with the Swiss Confederacy and built barracks in Via Pellegrino after foreseeing the possibility of recruiting Swiss mercenaries. The pact was renewed by Innocent VIII (1484–1492) in order to use them against the Duke of Milan. Alexander VI (1492–1503) later actually used the Swiss mercenaries during their alliance with the King of France. During the time of the Borgias, however, the Italian Wars began in which the Swiss mercenaries were a fixture in the front lines among the warring factions, sometimes for France and sometimes for the Holy See or the Holy Roman Empire. The mercenaries enlisted when they heard King Charles VIII of France was going to war with Naples. Among the participants in the war against Naples was Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere, the future Pope Julius II (1503–1513), who was well acquainted with the Swiss, having been Bishop of Lausanne years earlier.
The expedition failed, in part thanks to new alliances made by Alexander VI against the French. When Cardinal della Rovere became Pope Julius II in 1503, he asked the Swiss Diet to provide him with a constant corps of 200 Swiss mercenaries. This was made possible through the financing of the German merchants from Augsburg, Bavaria, Ulrich and Jacob Fugger, who had invested in the Pope and saw it fit to protect their investment. There have been a few short periods when the Swiss Guard was disbanded for one reason or another, so they cannot claim to have an absolutely unbroken record. But, even so, they are one of the oldest standing armies in existence. They are also the smallest.
The force has varied greatly in size over the years. Its most significant hostile engagement was on 6 May 1527, when 147 of the 189 Guards, including their commander, died fighting the troops of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V in the stand of the Swiss Guard 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). Clement VII was forced to replace the Swiss Guard by a contingent of 200 German mercenaries (Custodia Peditum Germanorum). Ten years later, under Pope Paul III, the Swiss Guard was reinstated, under commander Jost von Meggen.
After the end of the Italian Wars, the Swiss Guard ceased to be used as a military combat unit in the service of the pope and its role became mostly that of the protection of the person of the pope and of a ceremonial guard. However, twelve members of the Pontifical Swiss Guard of Pius V served as part of the Swiss Guard of admiral Marcantonio Colonna in the Battle of Lepanto in 1571.
The office of commander of the Papal Guard came to be a special honor in the Catholic part of the Swiss Confederacy. It became strongly associated with the leading family of Lucerne, Pfyffer von Altishofen. Between 1652 and 1847, nine out a total of ten commanders were members of this family (the exception being Johann Kaspar Mayr von Baldegg, also of Lucerne, served 1696–1704).
In 1798, commander Franz Alois Pfyffer von Altishofen went into exile with the deposed Pius VI. After the death of the pope on 29 August 1799, the Swiss Guard was disbanded and only reinstated by Pius VII in 1801. In 1808, Rome was again captured by the French and the guard was disbanded again. Pius VII was exiled to Fontainebleau. The guard was reinstated under the same commander, Karl Leodegar Pfyffer von Altishofen, when the pope returned from exile in 1814. The guard was disbanded yet again in 1848, when Pius IX fled to Gaeta, but the guard was reinstated when the pope returned to Rome in the following year.
In the later 19th century, the Swiss Guard developed into a purely ceremonial function. Guards in the Vatican were “Swiss” only in name, mostly born in Rome to parents of Swiss descent and speaking the Roman Trastevere dialect. The modern Swiss Guard is the product of the reforms pursued by Jules Repond, commander during 1910–1921. Repond proposed to recruit only native citizens of Switzerland and he introduced rigorous military exercise. He also attempted to introduce modern arms, but Pius X only permitted the presence of firearms if they were not functional. Repond’s reforms and strict discipline were not well received by the corps, culminating in a week of open mutiny in July 1913. In his project to restore the Swiss Guard to its former prestige, Repond also dedicated himself to the study of historical costume, with the aim of designing a new uniform that would be both reflective of the historical Swiss costume of the 16th century and suited for military exercise. The result of his studies was published as Le costume de la Garde suisse pontificale et la Renaissance italienne (1917). Repond designed the distinctive Renaissance-style uniforms still worn by the modern Swiss Guard. The introduction of the new uniforms was completed in May 1914.
The foundation of Vatican City as a modern sovereign state was negotiated in the Lateran Treaty of 1929. The duties of protecting public order and security in the Vatican lay with the Papal Gendarmerie Corps, while the Swiss Guard, the Palatine Guard and the Noble Guard served mostly ceremonial functions. The Palatine and Noble Guards were disbanded by Paul VI in 1970, leaving the Swiss Guard as the only ceremonial guard unit of the Vatican. At the same time, the Gendarmerie Corps was transformed into a Central Security Office, with the duties of protecting the Pope, defending Vatican City, and providing police and security services within its territory, while the Swiss Guard continued to serve primarily ceremonial functions. Paul VI in a decree of 28 June 1976 defined the nominal size of the corps at 90 men. This was increased to 100 men by John Paul II on 5 April 1979.
Since the assassination attempt on John Paul II of 13 May 1981, a much stronger emphasis has been placed on the guard’s non-ceremonial roles. The Swiss Guard was developed into a modern guard corps equipped with modern small arms, and members of the Swiss Guard in plain clothes now accompany the pope on his travels abroad for his protection.
To be considered for the guard a man must be between the ages of 19 and 30, unmarried, Swiss by birth, Catholic. Most also hold university or professional degrees. At minimum they must have completed basic training in the Swiss military. Service in the guard may be from 2 to 25 years. They may marry after three years’ service if they are over the age of 25.
Although their duties are largely ceremonial, the guards are all fit and well trained, and their armory looks like a weapons museum stocked with everything from cutlasses and muskets to the latest in automatic pistols and rifles – and, they are all in good condition, and are routinely used.
To celebrate the Swiss Guard I’ve chosen a very popular recipe, originally from the German-speaking cantons of Switzerland, but now widespread, and considered a mainstay of Swiss cuisine: rösti. These may look like conventional US hash browns, but they are infinitely more toothsome.
660 g Yukon Gold potatoes
125 g unsalted butter
7 g kosher salt
150 g crème fraîche
Preheat oven to 375 °F / 190 °C.
Clean and peel the potatoes. Shave potatoes lengthwise on a mandoline (approximately 0.03 in / 1 mm thick). Stack the slices in several small piles and cut them into shreds.
Place the shredded potatoes into cold water and thoroughly rinse away the excess starch. Then drain the shreds and dry them with paper towels.
Melt the butter, add the salt, and toss the shreds in the butter mixture. Do not do this until you are ready to start cooking or the salt will draw water from the potatoes.
Heat a large (10 in / 25 cm) nonstick, ovenproof frying pan over medium-high heat. Add the prepared potato shreds to the hot pan. Press them flat so that they completely cover the bottom of the pan. Cook until the bottom surface becomes golden and crisp (about 5 minutes).
Put the pan in the pre-heated oven and bake for 10–15 minutes. Remove the pan from the oven, and then carefully flip the rösti over. Bake for another 15 minutes.
Some cooks add an additional step at this point, although the rösti is ready to eat at this point. Remove the rösti from the pan and place it directly on a baking rack set over a baking sheet. Return this assembly to the oven and bake for another 5 minutes. This makes the surface becomes very crisp.
Remove from the oven and let the rösti rest for 5 minutes. Then cut into wedges and serve with a garnish of crème fraîche and chopped chives.