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Known as some of the best soldiers in the world at the time, a group of 150 Swiss mercenaries passed through the Porta del Popolo of Vatican City on January 22, 1506 tasked with defending the pope. More than five centuries later, the highly-trained Pontifical Swiss Guards remain arguably the deadliest feature in the center of Roman Catholicism.
By the end of the Middle Ages, the Swiss developed a reputation for creating fearsome fighting forces. The Swiss Federation, a group of nominally-connected city-states in the Holy Roman Empire, employed short-term militias built on mandatory service requirements for the young men within the boundaries of each canton. Frequently filled with the poorest citizens in any particular area, commanders somehow managed to instill a consistent spirit of fierceness and exacting discipline among the troops from one generation to the next.
As other armies discovered the level of Swiss skill -- often when facing them as opposition -- European monarchs from France, Spain, Germany and Italy sought to hire them as mercenaries when heading off to one of the frequent wars of the 15th century. During the Burgundian Wars, for example, heavily outnumbered Swiss pikemen neutralized the threat of advancing cavalry, cementing their status as the best infantry on the continent. Impressed, French king Louis XI hired a company of 127 for personal protection.
At roughly the same time, around 1480, Pope Sixtus IV contracted with these “Swiss Guards” for a defense of Vatican City, going so far as to build a barracks for the soldiers along the Via Pellegrino to the north of St. Peter’s Basilica. In 1494, as King Charles VIII of France marched through Italy for an assault on Naples, among the troops was a man by the name Giuliano della Rovere. Twenty-three years later, after two decades as the Cardinal of Ostia, he took the highest office in Roman Catholicism as Pope Julius II.
Among his first requests upon receiving the appointment, Julius turned to the Swiss Diet with a request for 200 mercenaries to maintain the perimeter full-time. On January 22, 1506, the first contingent arrived in two columns led by Kaspar von Silenen. Without true uniforms, Julius merely paid for the men to receive a new pair of shoes and fresh clothes. (Common dress would soon come, but the trademark orange and dark blue garb worn today is just a century old.)
Two decades later, the armies of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V raided Rome on May 6, 1527. Imperial soldiers, angry at Charles’ inability to make payment for services rendered in the victory over the League of Cognac, turned their rage on the Italian capital. Of 189 Swiss Guards in the Vatican, just 42 survived the assault, fighting around the obelisk in what is now St. Peter’s Square. In order to honor the memory of those who battled valiantly on that day, new recruits are sworn into the Guard on May 6th every year.
The modern Renaissance-inspired uniform, as designed by Commandant Jules Repond in 1914, is what the Swiss Guard are most known for. Depending on the guardsman’s rank and service detail for a particular day, he will typically wear a simple dark blue shirt and knee-length pants with long black stockings and a matching beret. On ceremonial occasions, however, the trademarked orange and dark blue striped uniform comes out. Consisting of 154 individual pieces of material, a tailor will spend as may as 32 hours working to custom-fit the uniform to a recruit. Through three separate appointments to check fit, the shirt and pants are hand-sewn into the eight-pound formal attire seen around Vatican City.
Despite their antiquated appearance -- traditional armor and a sword might be visible -- those selected for the Swiss Guard are considered among the most elite soldiers in the world. Clothed in an ungainly uniform, each man is an expert in hand-to-hand combat, as well as the use of pistols and small arms hidden beneath the brightly-colored fabric.
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