The Pope’s Private Army – 10 Cool Facts About the Vatican’s Swiss Guards

HOLY WARRIORS — For 500 years, a small army of volunteer soldiers from Switzerland has guarded the Vatican. Although the unit still dresses in 16th Century-style military uniforms, don’t let the quaint attire fool you — the Swiss Guard is reputed to be one of the world’s elite regiments. (Image source: WikiCommons)

“Here are some little-known facts about theVatican’s five-century-old mercenary legion.”

POPE FRANCIS HAS FIRED the commander of the Vatican’s 500-year-old security regiment — the Swiss Guard.

News outlets worldwide reported last Wednesday that the Argentinian pontiff dismissed Colonel Daniel Rudolf Anrig over concerns that the officer in charge of the ancient 135-man unit was too harsh a disciplinarian.

According to Canada’s National Post, Francis reportedly characterized the 42-year-old commander’s leadership style as “Teutonic.” It’s rumoured that the pope was particularly displeased that guardsmen were ordered to stand watch for hours without breaks. Vatican insiders say that after one early morning encounter with a weary trooper, Francis urged the sentry to have a seat while he fetched him a cappuccino. The pontiff has since been seen shaking hands with the ornately attired bodyguards as he passes their Vatican guardhouses.

A replacement commandant will be appointed in the New Year.

News of the high-profile termination has heightened public interest in the Swiss Guard and its long and curious history. Here are some little-known facts about the Vatican’s five-century-old private army.

For Switzerland's mercenaries, business in the late Middle Ages was booming.

For Swiss mercenaries, business in the late Middle Ages was booming.

Now Hiring: Swiss Mercenaries

The 16th Century pontiff Julian II, remembered today as the “Warrior Pope”, founded the Swiss Guard during the six-decade long Italian Wars. After cunningly maneuvering his way into the papacy, the 60-year-old Holy Father sought to safeguard his new-found authority against rival cardinals by raising his own armed regiment. In 1506, Julian sent for 150 Swiss mercenaries to make up the force. The guard has served the Vatican ever since.

The Swiss Hundred, King Louie XI's mercenary bodyguard was founded in 1480.

The Swiss Hundred, King Louis XI’s mercenary bodyguard, was founded in 1480.

Renaissance Rent-A-Cops

By time of Julian’s rise to power, legions of Swiss soldiers-for-hire were cashing in fighting in Europe’s seemingly endless wars — literally making a killing. Others found employment guarding foreign monarchs. As early as 1480, 100 Swiss mercenaries served as the personal bodyguard for France’s King Louis XI. It was a task the regiment continued to perform right up until the French Revolution. Between the 15th and 19th centuries, Swiss mercenaries also watched over rulers in Sardinia, Prussia, the Netherlands and Austria.

When revolutionaries stormed the French royal palace in 1792, King Louis' Swiss Guard fought them to the death. More than 600 of the hired guns died in the battle.

When revolutionaries stormed the French royal palace in 1792, King Louis’ Swiss Guard fought them to the death. More than 600 of the hired guns perished in the battle.

One of History’s Oldest Regiments

Aside from the Spain’s 1st King’s Immemorial Infantry Regiment, which was founded in 1248, the Pontifical Swiss Guard is the longest continually serving military outfit in history. While it currently carries out a host of ceremonial duties within the Vatican, the guard, which consists of 99 enlisted men roughly 35 officers and NCOs, is still tasked with protecting the papal person.

Banning Swiss Mercenaries?

In 1874, the Swiss constitution was amended to outlaw the hiring of soldiers by foreign powers. By 1927, Bern had even prohibited Swiss nationals from enlisting in other nations’ militaries. Interestingly, the famous Vatican guard was exempt from these new restrictions.

The Papacy’s Other Bodyguards

While the Swiss Guard is history’s best known Vatican military unit, the regiment has had some help over the centuries protecting the pontiff. The Palatine Guard was an all-volunteer rifle regiment formed in 1850 by citizens of the Papal States. The Noble Guard, an Italian cavalry unit, was instituted in 1801 to accompany popes when they travelled. Both of these ceremonial units were disbanded in 1970; only the Swiss Guard remained.

A Swiss Guard swearing-in ceremony. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Dressed to Kill

Strangely, the seemingly historic blue, red and orange striped uniform of the Swiss Guard is a fairly recent creation. The regiment’s distinctive baggy tunic and trouser look was designed in 1914, although to be sure, the current outfit was inspired by the group’s original 16th century garb. The entire ensemble, each piece of which is custom tailored to fit its wearer, is topped by a large black beret or a Renaissance-style morian helmet.

While the Swiss Guard carries 16th Century halberds on the parade square, the unit has a fully equipped 21st Century arsenal. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Tools of the Trade

Almost as famous as the Swiss Guards’ colourful uniform are its notorious Medieval-era halberds. These fearsome seven-foot-long pole arms are topped with a combination steel axe-head, spear tip and billhook. First appearing in central Europe in the 14th Century, the halberd was commonly used on battlefields of the late Middle Ages as a stabbing and hacking weapon. In the hands of a skilled soldier, the halberd’s downward-curved rear blade could be used to get in behind the neck of an attacker, even one on horseback, deliver a lethal slash. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the guard added bolt-action rifles, like the German K98 Mauser, and early automatic pistols to the arsenal. Guardsmen later trained on SIG submachine guns. Today, the soldiers have access to an assortment of compact automatic weapons like the HK MP-5 and

Swiss Guards stand watch act the Vatican. (Image source: WikiCommons)

, as well as SIG assault rifles and Glock pistols.

The Swiss Guards in Action

Although the guard has rarely been called upon to fight, the unit has seen battle. When in 1527, the Emperor Charles V sent an army of 20,000 men to sack Rome and overthrow Pope Clement VII, 147 Swiss Guards held off a vastly superior force on the steps of St. Peter’s Basilica. The soldiers courageously kept the attackers at bay long enough for the pontiff and an entourage of 42 troopers to escape. All those that remained were eventually overpowered and butchered. Among those killed was the guard’s own commandant.

So You Wanna Guard the Pope…

Today, membership in the Pontifical Guard is open to any Catholic male citizen of Switzerland who has already completed regular military training. Applicants must be at least 5-foot-8-inches tall and be between the ages of 19 and 30. Once accepted, volunteers vow to “faithfully, loyally and honouably serve” the pope and his successors “sacrificing if necessary [their own] life to defend them.”[1] The yearly salary for an entry level halberder (private) in the Swiss Guard is €15,600 a year (about $18,400 USD). [2] Food and accommodation is also provided.


The Swiss Guard made headlines in 1998 following the grisly deaths of the regiment’s commander, Alois Estermann, his Venezuelan fashion-model wife and a 23-year-old lance corporal named Cedric Tornay. The three bodies were found in Estermann’s Vatican apartment on the evening of May 5. Investigators claimed that Tornay gunned down the couple after being denied a promotion. He then turned the pistol on himself. It was later revealed that the young corporal was in fact having an affair with the guard’s commandant. The officer had recently broken off the clandestine relationship at which point the jilted NCO took his revenge. Others have since claimed that the three murders were part of an internal feud over control of the regiment and that the real story behind the crime is still being suppressed by church insiders. In 2011, Tornay’s mother urged Vatican officials to reopen the investigation.

Not all the recent news has been bad. In 2006, the Swiss Guard celebrated its 500th anniversary. To mark the occasion, 80 former members of the unit retraced the steps of the very first contingent’s trek from Switzerland to Rome in 1506.

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3 comments for “The Pope’s Private Army – 10 Cool Facts About the Vatican’s Swiss Guards

  1. ShortTom
    23 June, 2015 at 11:06 am

    So it’s time to get rid of all those guns, right Frank? Progressive hypocrites make me cringe, especially when they hide behind the shroud of religion.

  2. 4 December, 2015 at 9:16 am

    Great article. The Pope that founded the guard was Julius II.

  3. Alfred Julier
    25 September, 2017 at 5:37 pm

    My name is Alfred Julier and I was a member of the Swiss Guard under his holiness Pope Pius XII 1957 – 1958. I served at the funeral proceedings in November 1958.
    The commander of the Swiss Guard during those years was Oberst Nunlist, totally unsuited for that position. My room mate was Hans Ruetsche from Schaffhausen and I am trying to find his where abouts but with no success. I know he married a Roman girl and lived in Zurich Switzerland 1964. That is the year I left for Toronto Canada where I live today.I would appreciate any news about Hans Ruetsche or Bruno Venetz from Naters, Wallis, Switzerland who served as a Swiss Guard with me.

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