Today on January 22, 1506, the first regiment of Swiss Guards arrive at Vatican City to serve as the pope’s official bodyguards.
The Pontifical Swiss Guard, simply known as the Swiss Guard, is a small but elite unit of soldiers. Maintained by the Holy See, they are the world's smallest army with only 135 active men. Serving as the Vatican’s de facto military force, they have one simple mandate - protect the Pope at all costs. Together with the Gendarmerie (the Vatican Police), they protect all entrance and exit points to the city. Swiss Guards are responsible for patrolling the Apostolic Palace (the Pope’s official residence) as well as his summer home at Castel Gandolfo (southeast of Rome). With a rich history of being recruited for protection purposes, Swiss Guards have served many other European royal courts. A contingent of Swiss mercenaries served the King of France for over three centuries and had a strong presence in the Kingdoms of Spain and Naples.
In 1506, the present-day Pontifical Swiss Guards were established under Pope Julius II. This makes them one of the oldest operational military regiments in history. Decades before their official arrival, the Vatican built a training barracks to oversee the development of potential Swiss mercenaries. After years of training, the first contingent of 150 soldiers marched towards Rome under the command of Kaspar von Silene. Pope Julius granted them the formal title of the ‘Defenders of the Church’s Freedom’. In 1527, they fought a hostile engagement while defending Pope Clement VII from invading forces under Emperor Charles V. In the end, 147 of the 189 guards died which allowed Clement to successfully escape through the Passetto di Borgo.
Since the early days, Swiss Guards have dressed in a very distinctive uniform. Their renaissance-styled outfits consist of blue, red, orange, and yellow cloth with most soldiers still carrying the ceremonial halberd (a long pike). Since the assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II, they now carry more practical firearms for protecting their leader. Recruits are typically single Swiss Catholic males between the ages of 19 and 30 years old. Swiss Guards serve for a minimum of two years but can be extended upon request. With millions of people flocking to the Vatican each year, these iconic soldiers have become a permanent fixture for tourists.