The Pope’s Army: A Brief History of The Vatican’s Swiss Guard

by | 10 Mar 2024

While most museums in Europe may have a team of security guards, The Vatican has its own Army. Well, strictly speaking, it’s the Pope’s Army. And, of course, the Vatican isn’t just another historical site or museum.

Vatican City is a micronation, and while some visitors see it as merely an extension of Rome, it’s actually the smallest country on the planet – with a population of around 80. And like many countries, Vatican City needed its own defenses when trouble came calling.

The colorful Vatican Guards you see standing around the Vatican aren’t a flourish for tourists; they’re the real deal and they’ve protected the Pope for 500 years. Here’s what you need to know about the Swiss Guard, aka, the Pope’s Army.

Read next: 10 fascinating facts you’ll learn on this 10 day Italy tour

Photo looking down a road towards St Peter's Basilica and the Vatican City in Rome

Is the Swiss Guard really Swiss?

Yes, being a Swiss citizen is one of the requirements to become a Swiss Guard. The Swiss Guard was always made up of Swiss soldiers, though they operate independent of Switzerland’s armed forces. Instead, they’re hired by the Roman Catholic Church.

Why isn’t the Vatican Army made up of Italian citizens?

A very fair question, especially since the Vatican is neighbors with Romans who have a rather successful track record when it comes to protecting their empires. The Pope’s Army is Swiss because mercenaries from Switzerland had a reputation for being among the best in the world. France and Spain were already scooping up these warriors whenever they could. It was actually a Swiss bishop who suggested creating a contingent of Swiss soldiers purely for the use of the Pope.

post image

Why do the Swiss Guards wear costumes at the Vatican?

The uniforms that the Swiss Guards wear at the Vatican are the same traditional Renaissance uniforms that the Swiss Guards wore since the 1500s. There’s a good reason for 500 years without a wardrobe change: the uniforms symbolically connect the soldier with those of the past, demonstrating that they embody the same spirit, commitment, and goals as the first Swiss Guards.

How long does it take to train to be a Swiss Guard?

The quick answer is to say five weeks, which is the length of the induction training course, but a better answer would be a lifetime. Your application needs to be endorsed by a priest from your parish, which means many years spent acting with honor and reverence in your daily life. With Swiss basic training and a commitment to remaining unmarried for many years also required, it takes a lifetime of mental preparation to be truly trained for this special role.
The Swiss Guards inside St Peter's Basilica, among a crowd of worshippers

Is the Vatican Army a real army?

Yes, the Swiss Guards are a trained military force that will uphold its duty to protect the Pope should any forces threaten him.

Are the Swiss Guards the same as the Vatican City police?

No, though it’s easy to understand why there’s confusion. The Swiss Guards are trained soldiers, but their obligation is to protect the Pope, not the people of Vatican City nor the place itself. The Vatican City police protect the security of the micro-nation itself. And to make matters even more confusing, St. Peter’s Square is in Vatican City limits but is under the jurisdiction of Italy’s police force.

post image

Have the Swiss Guards been activated over the years?

As a legitimate army for one of the smallest countries in the world, the Swiss Guard has seen its share of conflict. One notable instance came in the 16th century during the Sack of Rome when ¼ of the Swiss Guard sacrificed themselves to allow Pope Clement VII to flee. As honorable soldiers, they prepared for the same doomed duty again in WWII, but surprisingly, Hitler did not attack the Vatican.

Bookmark for later: Curious travelers will love these museum-rich cities in September

Don’t worry: you can still admire the Swiss Guards from a visitor’s perspective in Vatican City. We’d love to show you around. The Easy Pace Italy tour with Insight Vacations takes you from the Vatican to Venice, showing you the wealth of Italian history surrounding the Pope, the painters, and the piazzas.

About Nick Dauk
US-based Nick is a freelance writer with a special focus on travel and technology. Nick's stories are frequently published by leading publications across the United States and Europe.