The Vatican Military Service

Vatican Military – Who Protects the Pope?

The independent city-state of the Vatican (Città del Vaticano) was founded in accordance with the Lateran Treaty between the Italian State and the Roman Catholic Church in 1929. An area of 110 acres appended to the treaty, together with certain other properties formally located within the state of Italy, but granted extraterritoriality.

The Vatican City State has never had independent armed forces. However, it has always had a de facto military granted by the armed forces of the Holy See including Pontifical Swiss Guard, Palatine Guard, Noble Guard, and Papal Gendarmerie Corps. These armed forces have functioned within the Vatican City, the Papal Palace of Castel Gandolfo and in several other extraterritorial properties of the Holy See. Moreover, the government has not engaged in any war since its formation in 1929 by the Lateran Treaty.

Since the Vatican located on the territory of Italy, responsibility for defending the state from any international aggressor lies on the Italian Armed Forces. In addition, during the World War II, the troops of the Palatine Guard were applied to all Papal properties in and around Rome.

military service in the Vatican

The Pontifical Swiss Guard is an army maintained by the Holy See, responsible for the security service of the Pope, including the protection of the Apostolic Palace. It controls access to the entrances to the city-state together with the Corps of Gendarmerie of Vatican City, which is a civilian force.

In addition, Pope Paul VI abolished the Noble Guard and the Palatine Guard in 1970. Right after the disbandment, the Papal Army (Esercito Pontificio) included two regiments of locally recruited Italian infantry, two Swiss regiments, a battalion of Irish voulnteers, artillery and dragoons, and the international Catholic volunteer corps the Papal Zouaves, constituted on 1861 to resist Italian unification. Because off the defeat and abolition of the States by the Italian Kingdom, four small papal units were saved, but restricted their functioning to the Vatican in the Eternal City.

The Swiss Guard has been the only active military in Vatican City since 1970. The officers’ rank markings of the army include the Chaplain of the Guard ranks as a Lieutenant Colonel and the Commandant, who is a senior member of the Papal Household. Moreover, the Commandant’s personal coat of arms appears in the middle of the standard of the Swiss Guard for the period of his command.

Pontifical Swiss Guard

Swiss Guard in the Vatican

The Pontifical Swiss Guard, also called Papal Swiss Guard (Latin: Cohors Helvetica or Cohors Pedestris Helvetiorum a Saca Custodia Pontificis) serve as military of the Vatican City. The Swiss Guard was established in 1506 under Pope Julius II. His choice to hire Swiss mercenaries was connected to their reputation of being invincible and loyal. The Pope’s security service started to exist more than 500 years ago and today, the powerful armory army is responsible for Pope Francis’s safety.

Nowadays the Swiss Guard functions much as a ceremonial unit, but they are professionally trained to use weapons to protect the Pope

The Swiss Guard wears the costumes of blue, red, orange and yellow colors with a Renaissance-inspired appearance. Moreover, the uniform is usually worn with a blue basque cap. Also, the soldiers are equipped with traditional weapons, such as halberd and modern firearms, where one of the most notable aspects of the Swiss Guard is their vintage armory.

If you want to join Pope’s personal security forces, you have to follow special criteria: the candidate must be unmarried Swiss Catholic male between 19 and 30 years old, who have been trained with the Swiss Armed Forces. Guards can marry after getting 25 years old, after they have already served for 3 years or more. In addition, applicants must be at least 174 cm tall, while Swiss nationality is a prerequisite for joining the Corps.

Palatine Guard

the Palatine Guard in Vatican

The Palatine Guard (Guardia Palatina d’Onore) served as a military unit of the Vatican City State. Pope Pius IX, who combined two military units of the Papal States, constituted the Guard in 1850. The corps was formed as an infantry unit and served as security keeping in Rome. The only time when it was an active service is during the token resistance on September 20, 1870 to the occupation of Rome by Italian government troops. Moreover, the Guard survived into the period of the Vatican City State, as a de facto Vatican military unit from 1929 until 1970.

After the formation of the Palatine Guard, they performed ceremonial functions as a guard of honor. As a rule, they were seen either when the Pope was in St. Peter’s Square, or when a head of the state or any other important guest was received by the Pope. Moreover, members of the corps were part-time volunteers and their service was not paid. However, they received an allowance to get or repair their uniforms. The corps was the only one in the service of the Vatican City State to have a full military band.

In September 1939, the Palatine Guard numbered 500 men, while by the liberation of Rome in June 1944 – the number had grown to 2000 men

Consequently, the Corps came back to the smaller size and to chiefly ceremonial duties. In addition, Pope Paul VI, as mentioned above, abolished it on 14 September, 1970.

Noble Guard

the noble guard of the Vatican

Pope Pius VII formed the Noble Guard (Guardia Nobile) in 1801. The regiment originally constituted as a heavy cavalry unit and served as part of the Pope’s personal guard. Moreover, the Guard carried out special missions within the Papal States until their abolition, and then proceeded to function at the Vatican with a limited mounted escort role. Into the period of the Vatican City State, as de facto military unit, the Noble Guard served from 1929 until 1970.

The guardsmen were available for special missions within the Papal States and one of their first duties was to escort Pius VII to Paris for the coronation of Napoleon Bonaparte. As a cavalry unit, Noble Guard had little opportunity to deploy on horseback in the borders of the Vatican, even though two mounted troopers would accompany the papal carriage when the Pope was heading to the Vatican gardens. If previously, the guardsmen were armed with carbines, pistols and sabers, after 1870, they started to carry only a saber.

In 1904 mounted service was canceled entirely and all the horses were sold off

The corps consisted of volunteers, who were not paid for the service. Moreover, recruits were chosen from noble families in Rome. The commander of the corps was called the Captain, while one of the subordinate positions within the corps was the Hereditary Standard-Bearer, who was responsible for keeping the standard of the Catholic Church.

Papal Gendarmerie Corps

Papal Gendarmerie of the Vatican

Pope Pius VII formed the Papal Gendarmerie Corps (Corpo di Gendarmeria Papale) in 1816. Its original name was the Papal Carabinieri Corps and the unit served as a military police unit. In 1849, it was renamed by Pope Pius IX as the Papal Velites Regiment and later, as the Papal Gendarmeria Corps. The Papal Gendarmerie Corps saw active military engagement in the battles during the abolition of the Papal States. Moreover, the corps survived into the period of the Vatican City State as a de facto military unit, providing internal security.

In 1970, the corps was changed into a civilian police unit named the Central Security Office

In 1991, it was renamed again as the Security Corps of Vatican City State. Later, in 2002, the policing role changed its definition and acquired its present name of Gendarmerie Corps of the Vatican City State. Importantly, until 1970, when it served as a military unit, the corps had to elaborate ceremonial uniforms. Nowadays all its structures are of a civilian police service, which retain some ceremonial functions. For instance, the provision of the Vatican’s ceremonial marching band.

Have you ever been in the Vatican? Want to try yourself as a Swiss Guard? 🙂

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Author: Yekaterina Zusmann

Yekaterina Zusmann
For the last five years I live in Rome, Italy. Recently, I've graduated from the American university of John Cabot with major in communication and minor in entrepreneurship. I have a passion for writing, traveling, and exploring new things.