In 1505, Pope Julius II established the Swiss Guards, a distinct body of guards for the pope. Their recruitment is based on the centuries-long agreement between the Holy See and the Catholic civil authorities of Switzerland.
They are the official “police” of Vatican City as well as body guards for the pope. Their red, yellow, and blue uniforms were designed by Michelangelo in the sixteenth century and are still used today. The uniform is in the colors of the Medici family, which gave the Church many popes during the Renaissance.
They also wear other uniforms and street clothes, and they carry forms of protection more fitting in today’s society; nevertheless, anyone visiting Rome will usually encounter the Michelangelo-style guards. They are at every event at which the Pope is present, and they are also stationed throughout the Vatican City which is a separate country from Rome. Since the attempt on Pope John Paul II’s life in 1981, Swiss Guards’ training has changed to include all aspects of modern protection and security. The guardsmen have completed rugged training in karate, self-defense, judo, and the use of firearms and heavy assault weaponry.
There are 110 guards, plus six officers, and their main responsibility is guarding the apostolic palaces. These soldiers are veterans of the Swiss military and are diplomatic enough to handle all sorts of visitors from cardinals, bishops, and priests, to presidents, kings, and prime ministers.
The most famous historical event involving the Swiss Guards was their defense of Pope Clement VII during the sack of Rome in 1527. One hundred and forty-seven Swiss Guards were killed and only forty-two reached safety with the Pope in Castel Sant’Angelo. This castle is located not too far from the Vatican on the Tiber River and is connected to Saint Peters by way of a tunnel. During political upheavals this has proven a successful escape route used by the popes.
The structure of the guards has been modified over the years. Presently, there are seven ranks within the guards. The senior officer holds the rank of colonel. Guardsmen of the lowest ranks are called halberdiers and are not permitted to marry until they reach the rank of corporal. Applicants must also be at least five feet, nine inches in height and have letters of recommendation from past members of the Guard, now returned to Switzerland, a priest, local police and government officials and employers.
Papal service is worn as a badge of family honor, and can substitute for compulsory Swiss military service.