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The Stand of the Swiss Guard


In 1506, a small contingent of 150 Swiss soldiers of fortune began serving as papal bodyguards. 512 years later, the Swiss Guard continues to serve as the official watchmen for Vatican City, upholding a proud tradition of defending the pope. The unit’s loyalty was put to the test during an attack on Rome in 1527. When confronted by an overwhelming enemy force, the Swiss Guard made a legendary stand to protect Pope Clement VII.

On the morning of May 6, 1527, an army of some 20,000 mercenaries fighting on behalf of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V prepared to storm the capital of Christendom. These men were fresh off a campaign against the League of Cognac, an alliance between King Francis I of France and Pope Clement VII. The Holy Roman Emperor’s troops hadn’t been paid in months and were on the verge of rebellion. To maintain their loyalty, the mercenary army was promised a chance to plunder Rome.

The Sack of Rome, by Francisco Javier Amérigo Aparicio. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Once outside one of the world’s most magnificent cities, all that stood in the way of the impoverished mob was a desperate defense led by citizens and militia. The defenders did what they could, but by 7:30 a.m., the invading army had broken through Rome’s defenses and entered the Vatican district. On the steps St. Peter’s Basilica, 189 Swiss Guards stood their ground as thousands of bloodthirsty mercenaries descended upon them. Displaying unwavering courage in the face of certain destruction, the guardsmen fought on in defense of the Holy Father. The bravery of the Swiss Guard could not be doubted, but the odds against them were simply too great. All but 42 of the 189 guardsmen died defending Pope Clement VII. Their heroic stand allowed the pope to escape via a secret corridor to the impregnable Castel Sant’Angelo.

The incredible sacrifice made by the Swiss Guard during the Sack of Rome in 1527 lives on to this day. New recruits to the unit are traditionally sworn in on the anniversary of the courageous stand as a testament to the bravery of the guardsmen all those years ago. The Swiss Guard even prepared for a similar self-sacrifice during the Second World War when German forces entered Rome. The vastly outnumbered guardsmen took up defensive positions, but Hitler decided not to attack the Vatican and no blood was shed.

A Swiss Guard oath ceremony on May 6, 2013. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The lessons of history will always serve as a reminder of the enduring loyalty of the Swiss Guard. Those who visit Vatican City today won’t go far without seeing what some have called “the world’s smallest army.” The Swiss Guard continues to keep watch, just like they have done for over 500 years.


Encyclopædia Britannica: Pope Clement VII.

Encyclopædia Britannica: Swiss Guards.

Spiegel Online: The Bloody Sack of Rome.

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