The Swiss guards are the Vatican's official military in charge of security.
Anyone who has ever watched the movie Angels & Demons recognizes the Pope's private guards in their colorful attire. As their name implies, the Swiss Guards are a militia of Swiss soldiers primarily responsible of guarding the Vatican.
The Vatican is the world's smallest country at 110 acres, but there is a guardsman or officer for every single acre of land. The permanent staff of 110 are recruited from the official Swiss military. Each member is a Swiss citizen under the age of 30 and has volunteered to serve a contract lasting for 25 months.
As a group, the Swiss Guards make up the smallest active army in the world.
I find it interesting that the Swiss Guard institution reflects Switzerland's past: Unlike the present, there was a lot of poverty which prompted young men to seek for their fortunes abroad. Starting in the 16th century, Swiss Guard units were thus hired as bodyguards, ceremonial guards and palace guards at various European courts.
Due to Switzerland's political neutrality and reputation for honoring agreements, a pope or emperor could have the confidence that his Swiss Guards would not suddenly turn on him...
Every year on May 6, a new batch of Swiss guards take an oath of loyalty.
The Swiss Guards are in charge of monitoring access to the Vatican and protecting its four entrances.
The guards' festive uniform in yellow, blue and red:
The Pope's bodyguards may look old fashioned on the outside. When on public duty, they are equipped with Medieval weapons such as pikes or swords...
In reality, the Swiss Guards are one of the best equipped armies in the world. Their training includes skills such as crowd control or dignitary protection.
The metal helmet is traditionally decorated with an ostrich feather: The guards equipped with halberdier weapons wear red, Commanders and Sergeant Majors white, Lieutenants purple and drummers yellow/black feathers.
The first Swiss Guards to enter the Vatican in 1506 were likely dressed like soldiers at that time - without a designated uniform. It is only in the 20th century that they were provided the exquisite outfit they are still wearing today.
As a bonus for all the history buffs, here is an interesting fact for your next visit to Lucerne: The famous Lion Monument commemorates the more than 600 Swiss Guards who were killed while defending Marie Antoinette during the French Revolution:
More Information about the Swiss guards
- 13 facts about the Swiss guards you probably didn't know (Newly Swissed)
- About the swearing-in ceremony on May 6 (Newly Swissed)
- History of the Uniform of the Swiss Guards
- Watch the changing ceremony of the Swiss Guards
(Swiss guard photographs copyright by , lion monument photograph copyright by Leiju/Wikimedia)