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Vatican (Holy See) - Swiss Guard

Last modified: 2001-12-29 by dov gutterman
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by Joe McMillan , 29 Febuary 2000

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The Papal Swiss Guard was founded in 1506. It is today largely ceremonial, but like the Guards in London they are a fully operational modern military force. When in ceremonial 16th century uniform, they keep their firearms in guard boxes nearby. The Papal Guard are the only mercenary unit permitted under Swiss law since 1859, and are the last of a long tradition of a million mercenaries in the world's armies. The Guard today consists of 5 officers, 25 NCOs and 70 halberdiers.
You can see a photo of recruits swearing in on the Guards flag at I don't know when the flag was instituted, or how it has evolved, but it represents the 18th century tradition of Swiss mercenary flags. It consists of a white cross "traversante" (extending to the edges, unlike the modern short Swiss cross) which conveniently divides the flag into brightly coloured quarters. The first and fourth quarters are identical and consist of the Pope's arms on a red field. Presumably these change on the Swiss Guards' flag with every new pope. The second and third quarters are also identical, consisting of five horizontal stripes -- blue-yellow-red-yellow-blue. (These are the colours of the Guards' Renaissance-style uniform, which incidentally dates from 1915, and was not designed by Michelangelo as the popular myth would have us believe.) The central device on the white cross is probably the arms of the colonel of the regiment, or those of the Pfyffer d'Altishofen family which made the colonelcy hereditary from 1652 to 1847. I'm not sure what the rules are for changing the central coat of arms.
The colour photo represents the annual swearing in of recruits on 6 May (and the Guard's principal ceremonial event). This is the anniversary of the 1527 sack of Rome when the 200-strong Guard defended Pope Clement VII against a Spanish-German army of 22,000. 147 were killed (including the Captain Kaspar Roist of Zurich), and the survivors took the Pope to Castel San Angelo where they held out for a month before negiotiating a surrender. Ironically Zurich was in the throws of the Reformation and had recalled the Captain and his fellow Zurichers. They decided to wait until the storm blew over, and paid for it with their lives.
T.F. Mills, 6 May 1998

The following is paraphrased and condensed from the article on the Swiss Guards in the New Catholic Encyclopedia:

"From the time of the Middle Ages, Swiss pikemen fought as mercenaries in the armies of many European states under treaties with the various Swiss cantons.  Among the most famous of these were the Garde Suisse of the French monarchy.
Swiss soldiers served the armies of the Papacy from the late 1300s onward, but only during the reign of Julius II (1503-13) was action taken to establish an organized unit of Swiss Guards directly under the Pope.  In 1505, pursuant to a treaty was signed between Pope Julius II and the cantons of Zurich and Lucerne, Julius requested that the two cantons send 200 soldiers to Rome under the command of Peter von Hertenstein as condottiere and Caspar von Silenen as captain.  They arrived on January 21, 1506, and were taken into service with a papal blessing in St. Peter's Square.  That event is considered to be the date of establishment of the Vatican's corps of Swiss Guards, the "Cohors pedestris Helvetiorum a sacra custodia Pontificis."  This unit is the only modern survival of the Swiss mercenary tradition, as the Swiss Constitution of 1874 prohibits the enlistment of Swiss citizens in the forces of foreign powers with the exception of the Holy See.
Joe McMillan , 28 Febuary 2000

Quoting from The Banner of the Papal Swiss Guard by Walter Angst in The Flag Bulletin, 187, May-June 1999

"only unmarried Swiss males of the Catholic faith - historically, mainly from the four original Swiss cantons (Uri, Schwyz, Unterwalden, Luzern) and Valais - are eligible for serviece.  Moreover, they must all be between 19 and 30 years of age, at least 174 cm tall and must have fulfilled their basic military training in the Swiss Army.  They are privately contracted for this special Foreign Service for at least two years.  No official is openly involved in the process, but usually the discreet services of some parish priests are used.  Guard duty includes the bodyguard for the pontiff, the watch at the entrances to the city, the ceremonial honor guard, security at many religious and diplomatic functions, as well as information, surveillance, and similar service. The commander of the Swiss Guard is always a colonel.  He belongs to the "pontifical family," holding the rank of a "Chamberlain of His Holiness." The pope alone appoints the commander.  At present, the colonel commands a lieutenant colonel, a guard chaplain, a major, a captain, a master sergeant, four sergeants, 10 corporals, 10 vice-corporals, and 70 halberdiers. This makes up the Guard of 100 men, although in 1971 this force had dwindled to only 40 members.  By law the Guard can be composed of at most 100 volunteers; hence it is called Hundertschweizer - (one hundred Swiss.)
"Unlike the regiments of the former military Foreigh Service (which remained at times under the laws of the Swiss Confederation), the Swiss Guard is under the pope who, throughthe secretary of state of the Vatican, exercises far-reaching jurisdiction over his 100 Swiss.  The Guards must live inside the walled city of the Vatican and they are considered citizens of the Vatican State during their years of active service.  Since the Second Vatican Council, their famed steel breast-armor is normally worn only on one special ceremonial occassion - the yearly swearing-in ceremony of new Guards, which takes place on 6 May."

The Flag Bulletin shows also the current flag of the Swiss guard, divided into Four quarters by the Swiss cross.  This flag changes with every pope and with the commander of the Swiss Guard.  Therefore, the arms of Pope John Paul II in the first quarter on a red background, horizontal stripes of blue, yellow, red, yellow and blue in the second quarter, horizontal stripes of red, yellow, blue, yellow and red in the third quarter and the arms of Pope Julius II are in the fourth quarter on a red background and centered on the cross the arms of the current commander withing a green wreath.
Angst quotes 189 Swiss Guards who were at the 1527 sacking of Rome, of which 147 perished.  When the Germans invaded Rome in 1944, the Swiss Guard stationed themselves in military grey uniform, behind machine guns and mortars just in case.
Phil Nelson , 29 Febuary 2000

Above is an image of the Swiss Guard flag, .  The flag is 2 meters square or a bit larger.  The gray area on the center inside the wreath is where the commander's arms are shown, placed on a background of the colors of his native canton.
Joe McMillan, 29 Febuary 2000

Looking at the Swiss Guards flag as illustrated above, and comparing it with the text, I see that according to the text the arms in the first and fourth quarters are the same. However, in your illustration, the arms in the first quarter are those of John Paul II, while those in the fourth quarter show a tree. Also, there is mention of a coat of arms in the centre (which is shown in the photograph of guardsmen swearing allegiance), but there's just a grey centre to the wreath in the illustration.
Mike Oettle, 19 December 2001

The difference with the photo, as far as I can tell, is in the CoA on the center of the cross and the size of the achievements in the first and fourth quarters.  The CoA in the fourth quarter is not visible in the photo at the link, except for the tiara and keys, and is therefore not inconsistent with the image.  As to the gray area on the center, note what Phil Nelson wrote above:  "This flag changes with every pope and with the commander of the Swiss Guard ... centered on the cross the arms of the current commander withing a green wreath" and my note:  "The gray area on the center inside the wreath is where the commander's arms are shown, placed on a background of the colors of his native canton." 
The arms of Pope John Paul II in the first quarter on a red background ... and the arms of Pope Julius II are in the fourth quarter on a red background."
Joe McMillan, 19 December 2001

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