Five Hundred Years of Loyalty: The Gallantry of the Pope’s Swiss Guard

Imagine yourself a contestant on Jeopardy. The answer is… “The world’s longest-standing, but smallest, army in the world’s smallest independent state.” And what is the question? The only possible question is, “What is the Swiss Guard”? Officially, the name of the pope’s personal army is the Pontificia Helvetiorum Cohors. In 2006, the Guard celebrated the five hundredth anniversary of its founding by Pope Julius II, the “warrior pope.”

The year 1506 was a momentous one for the Western Church. Not only was it the height of the Renaissance in Europe, it also marked the beginning of the construction of the new St. Peter’s Basilica. It would be built on Vatican hill, on the site of the thousand-year-old church, then crumbling, which had occupied the place where St. Peter was crucified — upside down. The newly elected pope (1503) succeeded the weak Pius III, whose one-month pontificate followed the less-than-holy, but very politically powerful Borgia pope, Alexander VI. Papal politics at the time were dominated by complicated family and partisan concerns. Suffice it to say for the moment that the Italian peninsula was the battleground between France and Spain in the contest of who would become the dominant power of continental Europe. The new pope, a real insider — his uncle, Pope Sixtus IV, had made him a cardinal at a young age — determined to restore the strength of the Church in relation to the political powers of Europe. It was a time of growing nationalism among the varying sections of the continent, when the nation-states, as we know them today, were just beginning to take shape.

Pope Julius had a dynamic personality. He was imperious, shrewd, and courageous — yes, as in battle. He was determined to restore the independence of the Papal States, which occupied a wide swath in the center of the Italian Peninsula. By putting the states under his own command, he would effectively separate the Spanish-held lands to the south and the French-held lands to the north.

Julius could also be called the “builder pope.” He took advantage — sometimes very literally — of the presence of the great painters, sculptors, and architects of the Italian Renaissance in his efforts to beautify Rome and present the seat of the Catholic Church in a big, bold, and beautiful way, thus signifying its importance and power. Bramante, Michelangelo, Raphael, and other great figures of the day were commissioned by him to employ their talent and create lasting and priceless buildings and works of art. Julius, however, was one of those whom one wag termed “the Papal Princes,” a succession of Renaissance popes who were not particularly holy or concerned with spiritual things, but who certainly enriched the Church and made the papacy an earthly power to be reckoned with.

So, What’s so Special about the Swiss?

It should be noted that the Swiss Guards are mercenaries — paid fighters from one country in the employ of another country. This practice was very common in the sixteenth century, and still exists to some degree today. The Swiss had developed a stellar reputation as fierce fighting men. Using a distinctive method of fighting whereby infantrymen, carrying long pikes and halberds, formed very tight phalanxes, which would advance like a solid wall. (Halberds are long handled battle-axes. The Papal Swiss Guard still carry them today.) The Swiss were the only foot soldiers able to defeat cavalry since the time of the armies of ancient Rome. The high mountains, deep valleys, isolated towns and farms of Switzerland did not lend themselves to cavalry warfare. This unusual technique, coupled with their fierce love of independence, earned them a reputation as the best defensive fighting forces in Europe at the time.

Switzerland began to emerge as a united nation around 1291 when several cantons formed a confederation for mutual defense. For ease of maneuvering, their heavily armed soldiers wore little or no armor. A major offensive weapon for them was the crossbow, a quintessentially Swiss hunting weapon that proved mightily effective from a distance. (One thinks of the legend of William Tell.) These facts, coupled with the poverty of the average Swiss farmer and their willingness to “hire out,” made Swiss fighting men the most sought-after mercenaries in all of Europe. Another reason for hiring the Swiss was that they were not specifically allied by politics or marriage to the squabbling royal houses. Even then, the famous Swiss neutrality was advantageous.

Pope Julius called on a trusted Swiss advisor, one Father Peter von Hertenstein, a real insider at the Vatican, and told him his intentions of gathering about his person a small group of well-trained Swiss protectors. In turn, von Hertenstein recommended Kaspar von Silenen, a man with a reputation as a competent military leader. Von Silenen accepted the post and became the first commandant of the Papal Swiss Guard. In the dead of winter he and one hundred fifty fighting men set off to cross the Alps on foot through the dangerous Gotthard Pass. When they arrived in Rome, just six months after von Hertenstein received the Papal request, they marched through Rome in their smart, colorful uniforms and settled in at their quarters in the Vatican. So began the long service of the Swiss Guard.


When one reads the history of Europe during this time, one can imagine a very complex plot unfolding in a tragic Italian opera. You have family alliances between royals sealed by political marriages, warring cities, Catholic-against-Catholic intrigues, and conscienceless Lutheran mercenaries, in the employ of Catholic Emperor Charles I, thirsting for the blood of priests and lusting for women and booty. A scenario so dark, with the proliferation of Luther’s dissolute doctrine thrown in for additional dissonance — the most twisted librettist could not possibly have matched the actual goings-on of this period!

To simplify the complexities of the situation to some degree, the fortunes of the Swiss Guard were always intimately tied up with the fortunes of the particular pope of the moment. When Pope Julius died in 1513, except for the brief reign of the Dutchman Adrian VI, the papacy was dominated by the powerful Medici family of Florence, who were politically allied to the French. Leo X and Clement VII, though of different personalities and ruling styles, used their family’s influence to achieve political gains to consolidate the Papal States. Leo was a flamboyant ruler who wasted the coffers of the Church on lavish parades and celebrations, loved by the Romans for his joie de vive, but not giving a thought to their spiritual and physical welfare. Clement was just his opposite, but he inherited an empty treasury and could do little to secure the Papal States.

An opposing powerful faction in the Curia was the Colonna family, personified by Cardinal Pompeio Colonna, who was allied with Spain. The selection of Charles V of Spain as emperor of the Holy Roman Empire effectively split the Curia into two camps, one supporting France to the north and the other supporting Spain to the south. Theoretically, of course, the spiritual head of the Holy Roman Empire was the Holy Father while the secular head was the emperor. In practice, as we can see, it certainly did not work that way.

And More Complications

To further complicate matters, the Turks were once again on the march toward Europe. To the emperor, this was the dominant concern. Next in Charles’ mind was the French threat to take over the whole of the Italian Peninsula. Finally, Charles was resentful of Pope Clement’s lack of action to stem the growing threat of Martin Luther’s fast-moving creed in Germany, where it threatened the order of the empire by severing souls from the true religion. Clement’s inaction on these three fronts logically led Charles to conclude that the only way to control this three-pronged threat was to conquer Italy and control the papacy himself, thereby consolidating the spiritual and secular aspects of the empire.

In the meantime, our small contingent of Swiss guarding the pope received a new commandant. As in the rest of Europe, politics in Switzerland were becoming more complicated. First, the Swiss were anxious about sending their best soldiers abroad given the Turkish threat to Europe. The Swiss Army had suffered its first real defeat in 1515 at the Battle of Marignano when more than 12,000 men perished. The defeat was at the hands of the French, who were only victorious because Venice sent them reinforcements at the last-minute. A new invention, the arquebus, a type of portable firearm using gunpowder, gave the French a distinct advantage and, in reality, changed military dynamics forever. Second, the Protestant Revolt hit Switzerland hard, effectively splitting the country into Catholic cantons and Protestant cantons. Zurich was hesitant to remain the home of the Catholic Swiss Guard, as the “Reformer” Ulrich Zwingli was influential there. So the headquarters moved to the Catholic city of Lucerne. Eventually, the very able Kaspar Roist was appointed the new Commander of the Guard in 1518. By hard work and shrewd military leadership, Roist had the Guard in tiptop form. They would be called upon soon to demonstrate not only their fighting ability, but their absolute loyalty to the person of the Holy Father.

Dress Rehearsal for Disaster

Pope Clement, as we have indicated, inherited an unstable situation when he assumed the Papacy. With the Curia’s loyalties divided and Charles V further encouraging such dissent, the leading cardinal backing the Roman cause, Cardinal Pompeio Colonna, boldly marched through the streets of Rome with five thousand foot soldiers and six hundred mounted knights in a show of raw power expecting to intimidate Clement into surrendering the Imperial City to the empire. In a prelude to the events of the following year, Clement had to escape to the Castel Sant’Angelo, a nearby fortress, while Colonna’s troops sacked the papal apartments and generally committed mayhem within the Vatican.

A truce — unsatisfactory to both sides — was agreed upon some months later; however the situation continued to smolder, eventually erupting in the hideous and tragic events of the following May, 1527.

The First Big Test

As we have seen, Europe at this time was enmeshed in war after war, battle after battle. It was a time of rising nationalism and religious factionalism. Looking back from the vantage point of five hundred years, one would think that the Christian peoples would have united to defeat the growing and continuing threat of the Ottoman horde from the East. Sadly, such Christian unity was not to be. Because of continuing warfare, princes, kings and, yes, even popes were at a loss as to how to pay their troops. One of the promises a military leader often made was the old adage “to the victor belongs the spoils.” And spoil they did. It was common to promise one’s troops that, on the invasion of a wealthy city, they could loot, kill, burn, rape, plunder and devastate to their hearts’ content. In their march toward Rome, the troops of Charles, under the command of the Duke of Bourbon, were hungry for booty since they had not been paid for some time. Worse, many of the soldiers were fanatical Lutheran recruits from Germany who had been promised the blood of priests, bishops and nuns to spur them on to the Holy City. It is hard for us today to understand the intensity of hate that Luther’s malicious railings against the Church engendered in the hearts of rebels accustomed to vice. The greater the lies, the more anxious they were to believe them.

The Rome of 1527 was indeed wealthy. Pope Julius had attracted thousands of artists, sculptors, scholars, poets, scientists, and humanists to the city. It was the high Renaissance, and the city was loaded with gold, jewels, paintings, luxurious homes, and rich nobility. It was a ripe plum ready to be picked by the hungry mob of an army. The danger, of course, in allowing an army to sack a city, is the inevitable breakdown of any kind of discipline. The commander often lost control of his men and utter destruction was the result.

Sadly, this was the result of the Duke of Bourbon’s siege. While his intention in advancing his troops into Rome on May 6, 1527 was to capture the pope and force him to pay his army a large sum of money, he did not want to sack the city. The troops ignored that latter intention after the duke was killed in the initial advance over the city wall. Defending the city were only the Roman Militia and the Swiss Guard. They were vastly outnumbered by the invaders. The valiant Commander Roist, suffering the same fate as his enemy counterpart, fell gravely wounded. His men carried him to his home and gently placed him on his bed to die, only to have the Imperial forces break in and hack him to pieces in front of his wife who lost several fingers while she tried to shield his body from the rabble. Every single Swiss Guard defending the main point of entry, 147 of them, was slaughtered in the attack. In turn, they left 900 of the enemy dead.

His Holiness, Pope Clement VII, was at Mass during the assault and he had to be evacuated at the last minute protected by the surviving Swiss Guard. Clement personally was a very holy man, a good priest, not a seasoned political schemer. Although he had tried to quell the invasion by the formation of the Italian League, his efforts were too little, too late. His physical condition was so weak that he had to be literally carried out via a secret passage from the Vatican to the Castel Sant’Angelo, a massive Roman Empire era fortress that was nearly impregnable. About a thousand Romans, including the few remaining Swiss Guards, sought safety in the castle. One old cardinal who had missed the drawbridge was airlifted in a basket onto the ramparts of the castle. From their vantage point high over the action, they could observe the slaughter below.

Forty thousand Imperial troops, hungry for money, booty, and blood hacked away at the Roman populace. There was no discrimination between rich and poor, saint and sinner. The holy Cardinal Cajetan was captured and tortured; nuns were treated like prostitutes; and women and children were slaughtered before the eyes of those safe in the castle. The atmosphere in the castle refuge was somber and prayerful, but thick with fear. One eyewitness described the terrible scene below as comparable only to the destruction of Jerusalem in the first century after Our Lord. The estimate of the dead is between ten and twenty thousand, with thousands more dying of plague as bodies lay rotting in the hot Roman sun. Those who were able had fled the city beforehand. Rome was left desolate, the dead outnumbering the living. Clement was reduced to being held prisoner in the Castel Sant’Angelo until such time as he could pay a huge ransom including giving up several great cities of the Papal States. He was never able to come up with the full amount.

Charles V, too, paid a great price for the mayhem caused by his troops. He was a loyal and devout Catholic who suffered much damage to his reputation as well as personal remorse. Even Spaniards considered him the jailer of the Pope, and why not? At length, Charles issued an apology for the actions of his troops and stated that he would have preferred not to have won the battle in so terrible a manner.

One of the results of these complex occurrences was the disbanding of the Papal Swiss Guards, another of the conditions imposed on the pope by the emperor. The situation in Switzerland was changing as well, with much of the country capitulating to the new religion; so the national government was not eager to commit its citizens to the papal service.

An odd sidelight to all of this tragedy is Clement’s escape from his prison in the castle. After seven months under guard there, one night he secretly stole out of the castle disguised as a peasant carrying a basket and an empty sack. He fled to Orvieto, a city north of Rome. Waiting for him there was an emissary of Henry VIII with instructions from his boss to procure from Clement his divorce from Catherine of Aragon so that he could marry Ann Boelyn. It was not until the following February, 1528, that Clement could return to Rome to witness the destruction first hand. Already in poor health, Clement adopted a posture of mourning over the death of the city that was once the jewel of Renaissance Europe, growing a long beard as a sign of his sorrow. It was not until 1548, under the reign of his successor, Paul III, that the Swiss Guard returned.

A New Beginning

The new pope was a transitional figure. When he assumed the office in 1534, Christendom was being torn asunder by the Protestant revolt. The Church was about to institute the Catholic Counter-Reformation, purging itself of the corruption of the Renaissance era. So Paul was effectively a man between two eras during an age of serious conflict, both in the Church and in the world. Rome was in mourning over its own devastation, and Switzerland over the loss of its finest soldiers. Both had to overcome their sorrow and turmoil over these incredible losses before healing could begin. After the destruction resulting from the sack of the city in 1527, Pope Clement VII invited the great Michelangelo to return to the Vatican to decorate the wall above the altar of the Sistine Chapel. The work was agreed upon, but only begun after Clement died. On the vigil of All Saints’ Day in 1541, the cataclysmic piece was unveiled, revealing, in some of the scenes of the figures of the tormented and damned, something of the agonies of the Holy City during the sack. While many objected to the portrayal of naked figures on both the wall and the ceiling, thinking them more appropriate for the wall of a tavern than for the personal chapel of the Supreme Pontiff, for many others, including the new pope, Paul III, the work produced a kind of catharsis.

By the mid 1540’s the climate seemed right to re-institute the Guard in the Vatican. Who would be their new leader? He had to be a man of great ability, respected by both the Swiss government and the Vatican. Better that he should be educated and widely traveled, a man of the world who could deal with the politics of the Curia and with the inner workings of higher echelon politics of all of Europe as well. In addition, he would have to be a man of some military prowess and one of iron will who would whip his troops into shape and keep them there. Such a man was found in the person of Jost von Meggen, nephew of Nikolaus von Meggen, mayor of Lucerne, who was well known and respected by authorities in Rome, including the Holy Father.

It seemed that Heaven had indeed found the perfect candidate, for when recruitment letters were sent out to the various Swiss cantons, even some Protestants were interested! By the time of Paul III’s death in 1549, the Swiss Guard under von Meggen was fully entrenched in the Vatican and had resumed its old authority. It was now time for the Church to look inward toward reforming itself.

Much-Needed Reform Begins

Although the Catholic Counter-reform began under Paul III, the new Pope, Julius III, really plunged into his papacy with the intention of seriously reforming the abuses rampant under the Renaissance popes. As Cardinal, Giovanni Maria del Monte had served as the presiding legate at the Council of Trent, catalyst for the Counter-reformation, which was about to stem the loss of souls to Protestantism and do away with such internal problems as corruption and immorality from the top down. There would be no more warrior, treasury-breaking, or immoral popes. Unfortunately, one of the “cuts” proposed by the new pope was to reduce the forces of the Guard, a proposal that did not at all sit well with von Meggen. After some haggling, the Holy Father agreed that he would only cut forces if empty coffers demanded it.

The successor to Julius III was Paul IV, a true reformer. Paul is credited with returning the papacy to the priesthood as it was meant to be lived. The Vatican assumed the air of a monastery under Paul and the popes began to live the life of prayer and maintain a certain religious decorum. All traces of the humanistic worldliness of the Renaissance popes were dispelled from the highest office in Christendom, at last. Paul was monkish, but politically astute, and knew that von Meggen and Swiss neutrality in the politics of Europe could be useful to him in his struggles with the Holy Roman emperor, France, England, and the ever-threatening Turks.

In his later years as commandant of the Guard, Jost von Meggen served more as a diplomat than as a military leader, both for the Swiss government and the Vatican. His vast experience and knowledge of European affairs were valuable to both governments. By the time of his death in 1559, von Meggen had served under four popes. His energies began to wane, and, on a winter journey from Rome to Lucerne, he died, exhausted from his many years of service in a difficult position. Although his plan was to be buried in Rome, he was buried in the city of his death, Lucerne, the first Swiss Guard commandant NOT to die in battle! Paul IV followed him in death just a few months later. With their passing, the Church and papacy entered a new era.

A New Leader Helps Europe Confront the Turks

A new pope, the sainted Pius V, and a new heroic commandant, Jost Segesser assumed their positions at about the same time. Segesser was both a diplomat and a seasoned politician in Switzerland and the perfect choice for the post of commandant. He was well well-respected and loved by the Guards. On its eastern front, Christendom was again being threatened by the Ottoman Turks, who had been turned back a hundred years before, in 1456, at the Battle of Belgrade. Still smarting from their final expulsion from Catholic Spain in 1492, the Moslem obsession for a conquest of Christian Europe continued to simmer. The Holy Father did his best to urge all the Christians of Europe to unite in prayer, and for healthy men to join in battle to stop militant Islam from trying again to overrun Europe.

Although the decisive Battle of Lepanto, October 7, 1571, is famous in western history for stopping the Turkish Muslim advance into Europe, it is little known that the Swiss Guards actually took part in that victorious battle. For his part, Pius V succeeded in convincing many of the European forces to join in a Holy League as he rallied the faithful to public prayer for the success of the Christian armies and navies.

One of the Swiss Guards captured two Turkish standards and sent them to the Swiss government in Lucerne, for which he was given a cash reward and recognition as a hero of the battle by Commandant Segesser.

Two Hundred Years of Quiet

The next two hundred years were ones of relative quiet for the Guard. Jost Segesser’s son, Stephan-Alexander, succeeded him as commandant, serving in that position for thirty-seven years. The Fleckenstein family served similarly for the succeeding two dozen years. One of the primary reasons for the lack of military activity of the Guards was the political change occurring in Europe in the late 1500’s and into the 1600’s. The Protestant Revolt had brought a huge upheaval to Europe. The great hope of the Council of Trent — that all Christians would return to Roman unity, did not come to pass. Although the Counter-Reformation did succeed in bring much-needed reform in the Church, it failed to bring back into the fold the fallen away.

Religious divisions in Germany led to the Thirty-Years’ War with Catholic and Lutheran Germans killing each other, and, effectively, splitting the country in half. The tragic Peace of Westphalia, ending the War, in actuality did split Europe into Protestant and Catholic countries with the state religion being that of the ruler. It is a signal of the de-christianization of European politics that the reigning pope, Innocent X, was totally exempted from deliberations determining the terms of the treaty. He protested, but his voice was “as one crying in the wilderness.” Countries now began to ally for political reasons rather than religious ones.

Another great weakness of the Church and the papacy of the time was the practice of the king or prince of a country or kingdom appointing his own bishops. Often the choice of the local bishop was made by the king’s mistress. This unfortunate practice led to the rise of powerful bishops and cardinals whose loyalties lay, not with the Church and to the Holy Father, but to the monarch and his retinue. A case in point is that of the powerful French Cardinals Richelieu and Mazarin joining forces with the Protestant princes of Germany, Sweden, and Holland in order to overthrow the power of the Catholic Hapsburgs in Germany. To these nationalistic Francophiles it was better to overthrow a Catholic dynasty in Germany, and thus assure the political ascendancy of France, than to remain loyal to the Church that one serves. Even in the Catholic countries, the monarch considered himself the head of the Church — “a pope in his own lands,” as one contemporary put it. This attitude taken to its extreme led to the heresy of Gallicanism in France.

What did all this political and religious upheaval have to do with the Guard? With the temporal power of the papacy vastly weakened, their role shifted from a military one to a more ceremonial one. This eventually led to the decision to reduce their ranks to one hundred and twenty in number, further leading to a loss of morale and discipline among the remaining troops. Pay was as low as morale; many of the Guards complained that they could not live on their salaries. Some kind of reform was needed to accommodate the developing situation in the Church.

A Three Hundred Year Dynasty

Throughout its history, as we have seen, God saw fit to bless the Swiss Guards with brilliant, effective leadership. In the second half of the seventeenth century, 1652 to be exact, members of the Pfyffer von Altishofen family began to be appointed to the position of commandant. With short interruptions, their leadership continued until the late twentieth century. Needed reforms were instituted, pay increased, and discipline invigorated.

Minor skirmishes were the main problems for the Guard. An amusing example was the appearance of a Scottish Presbyterian gentleman who traveled to Rome to harangue Pope Clement XIV in St. Peter’s Basilica with the usual accusations against the Church. The earnest, if deluded, fellow was unceremoniously carried from the church by the Guards who discovered that he had come to Rome to convert the pope to Presbyterianism.

Clement, being a mild-mannered and kind man, praised the man for his sincerity and paid his passage back to Scotland.

Revolutionary Years — Dealing With Napoleon

As we indicated previously, Europe was in the throes of revolution. The Masonic ideal, that went by the name: liberty, equality, and fraternity seem to have been divinized into a cultic mantra. Fortunately, after the Counter-Reformation, the Chair of Peter was occupied by holy and decent Popes. But the forces of revolution were too strong for them to deter. As these new anti- religious and anti-monarchical ideas boiled over into the violence of the French Revolution in the late eighteenth century, no earthly force seemed able to stop them. The representatives of the new French Revolutionary government were sent to other European capitals, including Rome, to foment those ideas.

The Romans disliked the boldness of the French representatives, flying their revolutionary flag and strutting their hatred for religion. An ugly incident in January of 1793 caused great furor in the city: A mob of Roman citizens had finally had enough and attacked a group of Frenchmen riding down the Corso, Rome’s main street for socializing. Stones were hurled and one of the Frenchmen was stabbed to death. Romans moved against French installations throughout the city and large demonstrations took place for the pope and the Church. French retaliation came three years later when a French military commander, named Napoleon Bonaparte, was commissioned to the Italian front.

Monument in Lucerne, Switzerland, to the Swiss Guards who fell in the French Revolution

Napoleon entered Rome with a two-fold mission: to steal as much from Rome and Romans as he could to enrich the French treasury, and, to depose or kill the Holy Father. He was only too happy to oblige his superiors with the first part of his mission, denuding much of Italy of priceless art and jewels. He craftily knew that to carry out the second part would work against his own plans to become the master of the Revolution. In the end, French troops marched into Rome, entered the Vatican, deposed — as a temporal ruler — Pope Pius VI, dismissed the Swiss Guard, and flew the French Republican flag atop the Castel Sant’Angelo. The aged pontiff was exiled to Valence accompanied by the Commandant of the Guard, Ludwig Pfyffer von Altishofen, where he died a prisoner of the revolution. With much fanfare the Roman Republic was declared, but it lasted less than two years.

The new pope, Pius VII, reached a concordat with Napoleon that allowed Catholics in France to worship in peace. However, in 1804, Napoleon had himself crowned emperor and made clear his intention to annex all of Italy to the French empire, declare Rome a “free imperial city” and become master over the pope and the Church. Once again, a pope went into exile and the Swiss Guard disbanded. Napoleon’s empire lasted only ten years, the Roman imperial city only two. In 1814, Napoleon abdicated his rule, the pope returned to Rome, Karl Pfyffer von Altishofen reconstituted the troops and the pope graciously granted asylum to Napoleon’s mother, two brothers, his sister and several of his officials. Napoleon himself went into exile on St. Helena, a desolate and lonely island in the South Atlantic, until his death.

The Italian peninsula remained the final conquest for the revolutionary Masonic forces in Europe. Beginning in the year 1848 and in the remaining years of the nineteenth and the opening ones of the twentieth, the temporal power of the Holy Father neared its end.

“A Prisoner in the Vatican”

Pius IX began his papacy in 1846 somewhat favorable to the new forces of “liberty” in Europe. Progressives cheered his election believing that the Church would change its attitude toward the revolution. It did not take long, however, for Pius to realize that any compromise with the anti-Catholic forces would mean complete capitulation to the enemy. Romans themselves were one day cheering the Holy Father, the next demanding his death. Needless to say, their loyalty could not be counted on. The aim of the revolutionary forces in the Italian peninsula was to unite the entire area under one secular government. Doing this would force the Church to give up the Papal States in the middle section of the peninsula. Although Italians spoke many different dialects of the language, some unintelligible to each other, and their loyalties were in actuality closer to their home city or province than to a united Italy, the revolutionary forces were stronger in both manpower and arms and had the backing of other anti-papal forces of Europe.

To simplify a complex time with complex happenings, what the situation boiled down to was that the Swiss Guard was the only military force that could be counted on to protect the person of the Holy Father. Once the Masonic forces reached Rome under General Garibaldi (whom, ironically, Pius IX, upon his election to the papacy, freed from prison) and the walls of the Vatican were breached, the likelihood was that the Pope and all of his retinue would be killed. Miraculously, Pius was able to escape to Gaeta, a fortified town just outside the Papal States. He sent Commandant Meyer north to assemble regiments of Catholic volunteers who had assembled there from countries worldwide to protect the pope and to regain the Papal States for him. It all came to naught, however. Pius returned to the Vatican after a bloody battle between the French General Oudinot and Garibaldi’s revolutionary army on the Janiculum, one of the hills of Rome. The Papal flag was once again raised over the Castel Sant’Angelo, the revolutionary forces were defeated within Rome itself, and the pope began his self-described confinement in the Vatican.

For his own part, Pio Nono remained inside the Vatican until his death in 1878. These were not unproductive years. He received visitors from all over the world. He composed the encyclical Quanta Cura, a condemnation of the revolutionary ideals and the anticlericalism rampant within them, with the attached Syllabus of Errors, in 1854 he defined the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of Our Lady, and in 1869 he summoned the Vatican Council during which the doctrine of Papal Infallibility was proclaimed. Ironically, the same year that the doctrine of infallibility was proclaimed — 1870 — was the year that the Italian forces under King Victor Emmanuel and Garibaldi smashed through the remaining small area of the Papal States, the city of Rome itself, and ended papal temporal rule. Pius’ response was clear. He kept his dignity and rejected any offers made to him and he went on with his daily duties as though he still ruled temporally. It was not until the Lateran Treaty, signed by Pope Pius XI and Mussolini in 1929, that the “Roman Question” was settled, and the rule of the Holy Father over the city of Rome officially ended.

The Swiss Guards during all this time became more of a military force than they had been in many years. Commandant Meyer trained them openly in the piazzas of Vatican City. They carried firearms and rifles in addition to the more traditional swords and halberds; they became sharpshooters with a serious eye to the possibility that the enemy was “out for blood” — that blood being the pope’s and their own! One of the problems with being “prisoners in the Vatican” was the sagging morale among the Guardsmen. The new commandant, De Courten, countered the situation by starting a Guard band, giving them a library, and allowing parties and celebrations with food and wine. It was a touchy time for everyone who lived and worked in Vatican City, and until the situation was settled with the Lateran Treaty, all the popes of the time regarded themselves as “prisoners of the Vatican.”

The Twentieth Century: Years of War

World War I came and went during the years that the political status of the papal lands was unsettled. The Guard remained alert, but, inside the walls of Vatican City, affairs went on as usual. Although the situation was “settled” in 1929 with the signing of the Lateran Treaty (which also recognized Catholicism as the official religion of Italy), when Mussolini was arrested, Hitler knew that their pact would not be honored by the King (who was a Catholic). Nazi troops swiftly moved on Rome; King Victor Emmanuele fled, and by September 11, 1943 Nazi troops occupied Rome. The reigning Holy Father, Pius XII, knowing that the Guardsmen were no match for heavily armed soldiers, ordered the Guard not to put up resistance if the Nazi troops invaded the Vatican. In fact, the Nazis behaved themselves properly, if only to avoid the appearance of impropriety for propaganda reasons.

One of the big worries of Vatican authorities during the occupation was that the Roman populace would storm St. Peter’s seeking asylum, panic would result, and reprisals from the Germans would follow. Another problem was getting food into the city. Vatican vehicles, which were neutral, were allowed to go into the countryside, purchase food, and distribute it among residents of Rome and Vatican City. They fed fifteen thousand daily. Pius, scathingly (and unfairly) criticized for being cold to the “Jewish question,” walked a fine line in Rome, knowing that any encouragement to resist would result in brutal payback, for both Christians and Jews. As the Allies approached Rome, food became even scarcer and the halberdiers often shared their own rationed portion of bread with the street urchins who begged food. On a light note, wine was plentiful, and helped to fill the caloric needs of the young Guardsmen, while making their long wait for the Allies more pleasurable.

Hitler, in his madness, actually had a plan to kidnap the pope and bring him to Germany. The underlings whom he commanded to carry out this crazy plan pretended to go along with it, but knew it would be futile. Germany was losing the war, and kidnapping the pope would only make their situation worse. Pius for his part, commanded his guards not to resist if, in fact, the Nazis attempted to abduct him.

On June 5, 1944, General Mark Clark and the British and American armies liberated Rome. Although there had been some Allied bombing in Rome, even in Vatican City itself, the damage was minimal. Pius XII offered prayers of thanksgiving for the happy outcome.

A Post War Calm

The decade of the 1950’s was one of relative calm at the Vatican. The biggest problem for the Guard was the low pay. In post-war Italy, with its galloping inflation, it was difficult to make ends meet. Otherwise, their situation remained pretty much on an even keel. The early 1960’s saw much hustle and bustle in Rome and Vatican City with the convening of the Vatican II Council. There were much preparation and many ceremonial duties to attend to. Hundreds of bishops and their retinues from all over the Catholic world had traveled to Rome and so had thousands of journalists. All had to be accommodated.

The Rise of Modern Terrorism

Sadly, the calm of the fifties and early sixties gave way in the latter part of the sixties and the 1970’s to a new kind of threat — that of international terrorism. Modern popes became world travelers, an innovation in the history of the papacy beginning with Paul VI. This was in keeping with their new vision as “pastor to the world.” Two attempts were made on Paul’s life, one in Hong Kong and another in the Philippines. John Paul II made the job of the Swiss Guard immeasurably more complicated with his constant travels and his habit of breaking away from his protectors to walk into the pressing crowds. There were many thwarted attempts on the Polish pope’s life, the Swiss Guard during these times acting more like the American Secret Service agents who protect the person of the president.

When Pope John Paul II was shot in St. Peter’s Square on May 13, 1981, by Mehmet Ali Agca, a Turkish terrorist with a previous history of murder, the Swiss Guard were right there. Unfortunately, their presence did not deter his would-be assassin, but their advance planning with the Roman police who cleared the way to the hospital in the always-impossible Roman traffic, was an example of the way that those who protect the Holy Father must think of every possibility before it happens. Since that near-tragic occurrence, the Swiss Army now provides automatic rifles, modern hand arms, and other standard Swiss Army weapons and protective gear to the Guard for as long as they remain in service to the papacy. When the pope visits foreign territory, the host country provides heavy security, but the Swiss Guards are always on the front lines, ready to take the bullet for the Vicar of Christ.

A Tragic Event

On May 4, 1998, a new commandant, Alois Estermann, was appointed by John Paul II. As coincidence would have it, Estermann was alongside the Popemobile on that fateful day in 1981 and had long and distinguished service in the Guard. Around nine o’clock that same night, shots rang out in the Estermanns’ apartment. Sister Anna-Lina Meyer a Swiss nun whose order performed various chores in the barracks of the Guards, heard the shots and went to investigate. Her first glimpse of the scene that was to rock the Swiss Guard and the Vatican was the dead body of Estermann’s wife on the floor of the apartment. The good sister summoned one of the Guards who discovered the bodies of Estermann himself and Cedric Tornay, a lance corporal, all shot to death. Tornay’s pistol lay underneath his body, an apparent suicide. Nothing of the sort had ever happened in the entire history of the Swiss Guard. Needless to say, rumors flew — both in the Vatican and around the world. Some speculated that Tornay was Mrs. Estermann’s jilted lover; others hinted at another sort of affair, between Tornay and Estermann. Some kind of covert involvement with the German secret police, the Stasi, was tossed around as a motive. Others opined that there might have been shady goings on with Opus Dei and that the Estermanns were recruiters for the organization. The case was fodder for an anti-Catholic press everywhere.

The official investigation resulted in the conclusion that, because Estermann had denied Tornay — for disciplinary reasons — his benemerenti medal, an almost-automatic award after three years of service, at the last minute, Tornay simply snapped. It was revealed that there was tension in the Guard between German speakers and French speakers, of which Tornay was one. That same tension exists in Switzerland itself. Some, such as Tornay’s mother and sisters, will never believe the official version, and the whole truth may never be known. The incident was a terrible black eye for the Guard and the low point of its nearly half millenium of honorable service.


While some may deplore the fact that the Swiss Guard no longer serves a military purpose, their function is still of great importance. The world is a much more dangerous place now that it was when Julius II formed his personal military force in 1506, and the Guard has had to change with the times. The pay is still low, but the prestige of the vocation of protecting the person of the leader of the world’s Christians is, in the opinion of the Guardsmen and their families — and their homeland of Switzerland — the highest calling a young Swiss Catholic can have.