The Swiss Confederation was a powerful factor in world politics in the years around 1500. Its belligerent people had humiliated Charles the Brave, Duke of Burgundy, and its mercenaries – loyal and courageous, as the saying went – were much sought-after by the courts of Europe and expensively paid for their services.
Shortly after his assumption of office, the great Renaissance pope Julius II della Rovere (1503-1513) – aided by his store of gold ducats as well as Cardinal Matthew Schiner from the Valais – managed to get the Swiss Confederation to rescind its alliance with the King of France and draw this its ally into the war for Upper Italy. At the same time Pope Julius, who was beset by fears for his personal safety, made arrangements to establish his own bodyguard, consisting of Swiss Confederates. 150 of these mercenaries arrived in Rome on January 22, 1506. Henceforth, they would protect the pope and his palace in the Vatican - up to the present.
The young Guard experienced a dramatic baptism of fire during the Sack of Rome on May 6, 1527. While the Eternal City was being pillaged by a leaderless rabble of German and Spanish troops, 147 members of the Guard paid for defending their lord with their lives. Among the dead was their commander, Kaspar Röist. Though fully informed about the imminent danger, his sense of duty had caused him to disobey the order to resign his papal assignment which had been given by his seniors in Zurich, who had already converted to the Protestant faith. Commander Röist was killed in front of his wife by the Spaniards – but Pope Clemens VII Medici was able to save his life by escaping to the St. Angel Castel.
The heroic sacrifice of the Swiss Guard came to form the heart of their own particular legend. Even today, the active Guard remembers the heroic sacrifice of its predecessors on each May 6, when the new recruits are sworn in. At the ceremony, the young recruit to the Guard solemnly pledges to give up his life for the pope if necessary.
This year, the swearing-in ceremony will be taking place at St. Peter’s Square in Rome, thereby forming the highpoint of many jubilee celebrations. A colourful coin set with characteristic motifs is a worthy souvenir for all those interested in this part of history.