Not many of the visitors to Rome, who pose for a photograph in front of the Swiss soldiers on guard at the gates of Vatican City, are familiar with the history of these troops who take an oath of loyalty to the Pope. To know more we must go back to the period of the Renaissance and discover the motives that in 1506 caused Pope Julius II to invite to Rome the Helvetian soldiers, renowned for their courage, noble sentiments and loyalty. Many centuries earlier the great Latin historian, Tacitus, had said: "The Helvetians are a people of warriors, famous for the valour of their soldiers." This is why the Swiss Cantons, as allies first with one side and then with another, played such an important role in the history of European politics. In fact as allies of Pope Julius II in 1512 they helped to shape Italy's destiny and were granted by the Pope the title of "Defenders of the Church's freedom". In those times, when to be a mercenary soldier was a commonplace occupation, there lived a people of warriors in the very heart of the Alps. The first Swiss Cantons had about 500,000 inhabitants and formed an overpopulated country, where, because of the precarious economic conditions of the times, there was much poverty. There was no choice but to emigrate and one of the most profitable jobs was that of a mercenary soldier abroad.
There were some 15,000 men available for this type of work which was "organized" and controlled by the small Confederation of Cantons. The Confederation authorized the enlistment of the men and in return received corn, salt, or other commercial goods. The men themselves regarded this warring as a temporary period of summer emigration. They took part in brief but glorious wars and then returned home with the "pay" and the booty, to spend the winter. They were the best troops of those times. Without cavalry and with little artillery, they had invented a tactic of movement that was superior to all others. Therefore they were in great demand both by France and by Spain. They were similar to a semimobile rampart, standing tall and impenetrable, and it is impossible to understand the Italian Wars without taking these mercenaries into account. Already in the 13th and 14th centuries, after the Swiss Cantons had become independent, many of their men were fighting in Germany and Italy and as the Cantons were unable to prevent this type of emigration, they sought at least to organize it.
The alliance with France was the most important and it began with Charles VII in 1453, and was later renewed in 1474 by Louis XI, who had seen for himself near Basle how 1,500 Swiss soldiers had resisted against twenty times as many men.
Louis XI hired some of the Confederate soldiers as instructors for the French army and the King of Spain did the same. When, at the end of the 15th century, with Charles VIII the Italian Wars began, the Swiss were described by the Italian historian, Guicciardini, as "the nerve and the hope of an army".
In 1495 the life of the King of France was saved thanks to the immovable firmness of his Swiss foot-soldiers.
The foreign service of the Confederates was better regulated under the 1521 alliance between France and the Cantons. With it the Swiss agreed to provide from six to sixteen thousand men for the King and in return the Cantons would benefit from the protection of the most powerful European prince. They became permanent allies and auxiliaries, but the Cantons were still the true sovereigns of the troops and reserved to themselves the right to withdraw them. These armed corps were completely independent, with their own regulations, their own judges and their own flags. The orders were given in their own language, German, by Swiss officers and they
remained under the law of their Cantons: in short, the regiment was their fatherland and all these customs were confirmed in similar agreements made in later years.
January 22nd, 1506, is the official date of birth of the Pontifical Swiss Guard, because on that day, towards the evening, a group of one hundred and fifty Swiss soldiers commanded by Captain Kasparvon Silenen, of Canton Uri, passed through the Porta del Popolo and entered for the first time the Vatican, where they were blessed by Pope Julius II. The prelate Johann Burchard of Strasbourg, Master of Pontifical Ceremonies at that time, and author of a famous chronicle, noted the event in his diary. In actual fact Pope Sixtus IV made a previous alliance in 1497 with the Confederates, which forsaw the possibility of recruiting mercenaries, and he had barracks built for them near where there is, still today, the small Church of St. Pellegrino, in Via Pellegrino in Vatican City. Later, renewing the old pact, Innocent VIII (1484-1492) also desired to make use of them against the Duke of Milan. And Alexander VI also engaged Confederate soldiers during the time of the alliance between the Borgia family and the King of France. While the Borgias were so powerful the so called Italian Wars began in which the Swiss soldiers were always present, in the front line, at times for France, and at others to support the Holy See or the Holy Roman Empire ruled by a German sovereign. When the Swiss mercenaries heard that Charles VIII, King of France, was planning a great expedition against Naples, they flocked to enlist. Towards the end of the year 1494, thousands of them were in Rome, passing through with the French army, which in February of the following year, occupied Naples. Among the participants in that expedition against Naples, there was also Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere, future Pope Julius II, who under Pope Alexander VI had left Italy and gone to France. He was well aquainted with the Swiss, because some twenty years earlier he had been granted as one of many benefices, the Bishopric of Lausanne. A few months later however, Charles VIII was forced to abandon Naples in all haste and he barely succeeded in forcing a blockade and escaping to France. In fact Pope Alexander VI had connected Milan, Venice, the Germanic Empire and Ferdinand the Catholic to form a barrier against the French.