Wednesday, June 6, 2012


Rivaling the romanticized myth and legend of the Musketeers are those colorfully garbed Swiss Guard. We think of them now as the stalwart guardians who protect the Vatican, its people and its historic treasures. How strange it is then to look back to their genesis and find homeless men who were, in essence, killers for hire.

“The Helvetians are a people of warriors, famous for the valor of their soldiers,” so proclaimed Cornelius Tacitus, a senator and historian of the second century. Helvetia—the Latin name for Switzerland—is, as well, the name of the tribe from which the population grew. And grew it did, so large it fell under precarious economic conditions of an overpopulated land shrouded in poverty. Some 15,000 men looked to emigration for salvation and their skill as warriors for the profession.

This moment was to be the creation of a band of brothers as famous as any that ever existed. Developing a tactical form of combat unique in its style—sans cavalry or artillery—they fought in brief and yet victorious wars during the warm weather months, returning home with their pay and any ‘bonuses’ they may have garnered in the form of looting.

Their reputation grew and so did their patrons; the Swiss Guard fought for France, Spain, Vienna, Naples, Portugal and other, smaller actions. But it is as the Papal Guards, the Guardia Svizzera Pontificia, that they still exist and in which personification the world knows them, the “Defenders of the Church’s Freedom.”

Though there is evidence of an alliance between the Guard and Pope Sixtus IV dating to 1497, it is January 22, 1506 when 150 Swiss soldiers stepped foot on Vatican grounds and were blessed by Pope Julius II. The next few years found them fighting for the Holy See, as well as for other Italian States, but it was not until a fateful day in May of 1527 that their most valiant test came upon them.

It is here that I encounter the Guard in the Sack of Rome, in a pivotal moment in The King’s Agent. A dynamic combustion of varied warring political forces found Italy besieged, yet again, by the French. The attack on Rome, when it came on May 6, 1527, found the city poorly protected against the under paid, under fed forces of Charles, Duke of Bourbon, frustrated and irritable soldiers who took it upon themselves to feed upon the glory that was Rome. The city was looted; men, women, and children were abused and killed, and the Vatican itself was set upon and overtaken. Of the almost two hundred Guards that protected the Pope, all but 42 died. Yet it was this valiant, heroic effort that allowed the Pope to escape from the heart of the overrun Vatican City, through the Passetto di Borgo, to the temporary safety of the Castel Sant’Angelo.

Every year, on May 6, new recruits are sworn in to the Swiss Guard in commemoration of the soldiers’ bravery on that fateful day, accepting their duty with this oath:

"I swear I will faithfully, loyally and honorably serve the Supreme Pontiff and his legitimate successors, and also dedicate myself to them with all my strength, sacrificing if necessary also my life to defend them. I assume this same commitment with regard to the Sacred College of Cardinals whenever the See is vacant.

Furthermore I promise to the Commanding Captain and my other superiors, respect, fidelity and obedience. This I swear! May God and our Holy Patrons assist me!"

No comments: