Swiss Guards

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Soldier and officer of the Gardes Suisses in French service in 1757

Swiss Guards (French: Gardes Suisses; German: Schweizergarde; Italian: Guardie Svizzere) are Swiss soldiers who have served as guards at foreign European courts since the late 15th century.

The earliest Swiss guard unit to be established on a permanent basis was the Hundred Swiss (Cent Suisses), which served at the French court from 1490 to 1817. This small force was complemented in 1616 by a Swiss Guards regiment. In the 18th and early 19th centuries several other Swiss Guard units existed for periods in various European courts.

Foreign military service was outlawed by the first Swiss Federal Constitution of 1848 and a federal Law of 1859, with the only exception being the Pontifical Swiss Guard (Latin: Pontificia Cohors Helvetica, Cohors Pedestris Helvetiorum a Sacra Custodia Pontificis; Italian: Guardia Svizzera Pontificia) stationed in Vatican City. The modern Papal Swiss Guard serves as both a ceremonial unit and a bodyguard. Established in 1506, it is one of the oldest military units in the world. It is also the smallest army in the world.[1]

In France[edit]

Grenadier of the Swiss Guard in France, 1779

Two different units of Swiss mercenaries performed guard duties for the Kings of France: the Hundred Swiss (Cent Suisses) served in the Palace essentially as bodyguards and ceremonial troops,[2] and the Swiss Guards (Gardes Suisses), who guarded entrances and outer perimeter. In addition, the Gardes Suisses served in the field as a fighting regiment in times of war.[3]

Hundred Swiss (Cent Suisses)[edit]

The Hundred Swiss were created in 1480 when Louis XI retained a Swiss company for his personal guard.[4]

By 1496 they comprised one hundred guardsmen and about twenty-seven officers and sergeants. Their main role was to protect the King in the palace as the garde du dedans du Louvre (the Louvre indoor guard), but in the earlier part of their history they also accompanied the King to war. In the Battle of Pavia (1525) the Hundred Swiss of Francis I of France were slain before Francis was captured by the Spanish. The Hundred Swiss shared indoor guard duties with the King's Bodyguards (Garde du Corps), who were French.[5]

The Hundred Swiss were armed with halberds, the blade of which carried the Royal arms in gold, as well as gold-hilted swords. Their ceremonial dress until 1789 comprised an elaborate 16th century Swiss costume covered with braid and livery lace. A less ornate dark blue and red uniform with bearskin headdress was worn for ordinary duties.[6]

The Cent Suisses company was disbanded after Louis XVI of France left the Palace of Versailles in October 1789. It was, however, refounded on 15 July 1814 with an establishment of 136 guardsmen and eight officers. The Hundred Swiss accompanied Louis XVIII into exile in Belgium the following year and returned with him to Paris following the Battle of Waterloo. The unit then resumed its traditional role, palace guards at the Tuileries, but in 1817 it was replaced by a new guard company drawn from the French regiments of the Royal Guard.[7]

Swiss Guards (Gardes Suisses)[edit]

In 1616, Louis XIII of France gave an existing regiment of Swiss infantry the name of Gardes suisses (Swiss Guards). The new regiment primarily protected the doors, gates and outer perimeters of the royal palaces.[8]

By the end of the 17th century the Swiss Guards were formally part of the Maison militaire du roi.[9] As such, they were brigaded with the Regiment of French Guards (Gardes Françaises), with whom they shared the outer guard, and were in peacetime stationed in barracks on the outskirts of Paris. Like the eleven Swiss regiments of line infantry in French service, the Gardes suisses wore red coats. The line regiments had black, yellow or light blue facings but the Swiss Guards were distinguished by dark blue lapels and cuffs edged in white embroidery. Only the grenadier company wore bearskins, while the other companies wore the standard tricorn headdress of the French infantry.[10]

Regimental flag of the Swiss Guards
Uniform of the Swiss Guards c. 1750

During the 17th and 18th centuries the Swiss Guards maintained a reputation for discipline and steadiness in both peacetime service and foreign campaigning. Their officers were all Swiss and their rate of pay substantially higher than that of the regular French soldiers.[11]

The Guards were recruited from all Swiss cantons. The nominal establishment was 1,600 men though actual numbers seem to have normally been below this.[12]

During the Revolution[edit]

Massacre of the Swiss Guards
Swiss Guards on the grand staircase of the palace during the storming of the Tuileries

The most famous episode in the history of the Swiss Guards was their defence of the Tuileries Palace in central Paris during the French Revolution. Of the nine hundred Swiss Guards defending the palace on 10 August 1792, about six hundred were killed during the fighting or massacred after they surrendered. One group of sixty Swiss were taken prisoner and taken to the Paris City Hall before being killed by the crowd there.[13] An estimated hundred and sixty more died in prison of their wounds, or were killed during the September Massacres that followed. Apart from less than a hundred Swiss who escaped from the Tuileries, some hidden by sympathetic Parisians, the only survivors of the regiment were a three-hundred-strong[14] detachment that had been sent to Normandy to escort grain convoys a few days before 10 August.[15] The Swiss officers were mostly massacred, although Major Karl Josef von Bachmann, in command at the Tuileries, was formally tried and guillotined in September, still wearing his red uniform coat. Two Swiss officers, the captains Henri de Salis and Joseph Zimmermann, did however survive and went on to reach senior rank under Napoleon and the Restoration.[15]

The Lion Monument in Lucerne. The incised Latin may be translated, "To the loyalty and courage of the Swiss".

There appears to be no truth in the charge that Louis XVI caused the defeat and destruction of the Guards by ordering them to lay down their arms when they could still have held the Tuileries. Rather, the Swiss ran low on ammunition and were overwhelmed by superior numbers when fighting broke out spontaneously after the royal family were escorted from the palace to take refuge with the National Assembly. A note written by the King has survived that ordered the Swiss to retreat from the palace and return to their barracks, but they only did so after their position became untenable. The regimental standards were secretly buried by the adjutant shortly before the regiment was summoned to the Tuileries on the night of 8/9 August, indicating that he foresaw the likely end. They were discovered by a gardener and ceremoniously burned by the new Republican authorities on 14 August.[16] The barracks of the Guard at Courbevoie were stormed by the local National Guard and the few Swiss still on duty there also killed.[15]

The heroic but futile[13] stand of the Swiss is commemorated by Bertel Thorvaldsen's Lion Monument in Lucerne, dedicated in 1821, which shows a dying lion collapsed upon broken symbols of the French monarchy. An inscription on the monument lists the twenty-six Swiss officers who died on 10 August and 2–3 September 1792, and records that approximately 760 Swiss Guardsmen were killed on those days.[17]

Swiss Guards during the July Revolution

Following the Restoration[edit]

The French Revolution abolished mercenary troops in its citizen army, but Napoleon and the Bourbon Restoration both made use of Swiss troops. Four Swiss infantry regiments served with Napoleon in both Spain and Russia. Two of the eight infantry regiments included in the garde royale from 1815 to 1830 were Swiss and can be regarded as successors to the Gardes suisses. When the Tuileries was stormed again in the July Revolution (29 July 1830), the Swiss regiments, fearful of another massacre, withdrew or melted into the crowd. They were not used again. In 1831 disbanded veterans of the Swiss regiments and another foreign unit, the Hohenlohe Regiment, were recruited into the newly raised French Foreign Legion for service in Algeria.[18]

Swiss in other armies[edit]

Swiss Guard units similar to those of France were in existence at several other Royal Courts and public entities at the dates indicated below:

  • From 1579 on, a Swiss Guard served the House of Savoy, rulers of Savoy and later the Kingdom of Sardinia. The Guard was dissolved in 1798.[19]
  • From 1696 to 1713, a Swiss Guard served at the court of Frederick I of Prussia.[20]
  • A Cent-Suisse unit was in existence from 1656 to 1680, from 1725 until 1757 and again from 1763 to 1814 in the Kingdom of Saxony.[21][22][23]
  • From 1672 until 1796, a company of Swiss (Cent-Suisses) served as a personal guard for the Stadhouder of the Dutch Republic;[24] besides a Dutch Guards Regiment, there was also a Swiss Guards Regiment from 1749 to 1796.[25]
    Life guards "Cent Suisse", 1752
  • The aristocratic Republic of Genoa had a Swiss Guard in service from 1609 to 1797 for its Doge's Palace and city gates.[26]
  • A Swiss Guard established in 1581 for the Duke of Lorraine, served Duke Francis-Stephen, indemnified with the Grand Duchy of Tuscany in 1737, in Florence[27] and, crowned emperor of the Holy Roman Empire in 1745, in Austria. It was dismissed 1767 in Vienna.[27]
    Courtyard of the Hofburg with the gate called Schweizertor (to the right) and statue of emperor Francis II
  • The Swiss Guard to the Electoral Palatinate by Rhine was several times disbanded and reformed between 1582 and 1778.[28][29]
  • The Gate, Palace and Treasury (Ufficio dell'Abbondanza, Italian for "office for abundance") of the City Republic of Lucca were protected by a Swiss Guard from 1663 to 1804.[30]
  • Khedive Mohamed Tewfik Pasha hired an irregular Swiss Guard in 1882 for the constabulary of Alexandria; it was dismissed the next year.[31]
  • From more than a half-dozen Swiss Life Guards for the Pope and its legates, only the Papal Swiss Guard has survived until the present day, by special permission of the Swiss Government.[32]

In total, Swiss mercenary regiments have been employed as guard and regular line troops in seventeen different armies; notably those of France,[33] Spain[34] and Naples[35] (see Swiss mercenaries).

Swiss constitutional prohibition[edit]

The first Swiss constitution, as amended in 1848, forbade all military capitulations,[36] a federal law, as amended 30 September 1859, all military capitulations and recruitment of Swiss by foreign powers,[37] although volunteering of individuals in foreign armies continued until prohibited outright in 1927.[38] The Papal Swiss Guard (see above), reflecting the unique political status of the Vatican and the bodyguard-like role of the unit, [32] remains an exception to this prohibition.

In popular culture[edit]

When writing Hamlet, Shakespeare assumed (perhaps relying on his sources) that the royal house of Denmark employed a Swiss Guard: In Act IV, Scene v (line 98) he has King Claudius exclaim "Where are my Switzers? Let them guard the door".[39] However, it may also be due to the word "Swiss" having become a generic term for a royal guard in popular European usage. Coincidentally, the present-day gatekeepers of the royal palace of Copenhagen are known as schweizere, "Swiss".[40]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Cutler, Nellie (2011). "Italy, Malta, San Marino, and Vatican City". TIME for Kids World Atlas. TIME for Kids Books (Rev. and updated ed.). New York, NY. p. 65. ISBN 978-1-60320-884-0.
  2. ^ Funcken, Liliane et Fred (1975). L'Uniforme et les Armes des Soldats de la Guerre en Dentelle 1. pp. 16–17. ISBN 2-203-14315-0.
  3. ^ Funcken, Liliane et Fred (1975). L'Uniforme et les Armes des Soldats de la Guerre en Dentelle 1. pp. 38–41. ISBN 2-203-14315-0.
  4. ^ Rene Chartrand: Louis XV's Army – Foreign Infantry p.3; ISBN 1-85532-623-X
  5. ^ Mansel, Philip (1984). Pillars of Monarchy. An Outline of the Political and Social History of Royal Guards 1400-1981. pp. 2–9. ISBN 0-7043-2424-5.
  6. ^ Funcken, Liliane et Fred (1975). L'Uniforme et les Armes des Soldats de la Guerre en Dentelle 1. p. 17. ISBN 2-203-14315-0.
  7. ^ Liliane et Fred Funcken: "L'Uniforme et les Armes des Soldats de La Guerre en Dentelle"; ISBN 2-203-14315-0
  8. ^ Mansel, Philip (1984). Pillars of Monarchy. p. 9. ISBN 0-7043-2424-5.
  9. ^ Davin, Dieder (2012). The Allied Swiss Troops in French Service. p. 7. ISBN 978-2-35250-235-7.
  10. ^ Funcken, Liliane et Fred (1975). L'Uniforme et les Armes des Soldats de la Guerre en Dentelle 1. pp. 39–41. ISBN 2-203-14315-0.
  11. ^ Tozzi, Christopher J. (2016). Nationalizing France's Army. p. 38. ISBN 978-0-8139-3833-2.
  12. ^ General Pierre Bertin, page 84 "Le Fantassin de France", Service Historique de l'Armee de Terre, B.I.P. Editions 1988
  13. ^ a b M.J Sydenham, page 111, "The French Revolution", B. T. Batsford Ltd, 1965
  14. ^ Philippe, Louis- (1977). Memoirs 1773-1791. p. 247. ISBN 0-15-158855-4.
  15. ^ a b c Jerome Bodin, page 259, "Les Suisses au Service de la France", ISBN 2-226-03334-3
  16. ^ Davin, Didier (2012). Officers and Soldiers of Allied Swiss Troops in French Service 1785-1815. p. 7. ISBN 978-2-35250-235-7.
  17. ^ "Lion Monument Inscriptions". Glacier Garden, Lucerne. Retrieved 8 August 2008.
  18. ^ Porch, Douglas (1991). The French Foreign Legion. A complete History. pp. 3, 4, 14. ISBN 0-333-58500-3.
  19. ^ Mansel, Philip (1984). Pillars of Monarchy. An Outline of the Political and Social History of Royal Guards 1400-1981. pp. 7&16. ISBN 0-7043-2424-5.
  20. ^ Mansel, Philip (1984). Pillars of Monarchy. An Outline of the Political and Social History of Royal Guards 1400-1981. p. 159. ISBN 0-7043-2424-5.
  21. ^ Heinrich Türler, Viktor Attinger, Marcel Godet: Historisch-Biographisches Lexikon der Schweiz. Vierter Band, Neuenburg 1927.
  22. ^ Alfred von Welck: Schweizer Soldtruppen in Kursächsischen Diensten 1701–1815. Neues Archiv für Sächsische Geschichte und Alterthumskunde, Herausgeber Dr. Hubert Ermisch, vierzehnter Band, Wilhelm Baensch, Königlich Sächsische Hofverlagsbuchhandlung, Dresden 1893.
  23. ^ Mansel, Philip (1984). Pillars of Monarchy. An Outline of the Political and Social History of Royal Guards 1400-1981. p. 16. ISBN 0-7043-2424-5.
  24. ^ Robert Murray Bakker (Albach): Die Schweizer Regimenter in holländischen Diensten 1693-1797, article in Jahrbuch der Schweizerischen Gesellschaft für Familienforschung, 1989, p. 57–104, edited in Texte zur Geschichte von Untervaz, Untervazer Burgenverein, Untervaz, 2012.
  25. ^ van Hoof, Joep (2011). Pillars of Monarchy. Military Uniforms in the Netherlands 1752-1800. p. 136. ISBN 978-3-902526-49-6.
  26. ^ Angelo Terenzoni: I Militari Svizzeri al servizio della Repubblica di Genova. Presentazione al convegno Le alabarda, La Repubblica di Genova, La Guardia Svizzera e non solo, Biblioteca Berio, Genova 2010.
  27. ^ a b Joseph Schürmann-Roth: Die Gardisten der Eidgenössischen Garde in Lothringen, Florenz und Wien im 17./18. Jahrhundert, Personenregister (bearbeitet), Staatsarchiv Luzern 1989.
  28. ^ Friedrich Vogel: Die alten Chroniken oder Denkwürdigkeiten der Stadt und Landschaft Zürich von den ältesten Zeiten bis 1820, Druck und Verlag von Friedrich Schulthess, Zürich 1845.
  29. ^ "Die churpfälzische Armee 1701-1777". In Friedrich Münich, Geschichte der Emntwicklung der bayerischen Armee in zwei Jahrhunderten, Lindauer, Munich 1864.
  30. ^ Staatsarchiv Luzern, AKT 13.
  31. ^ Hilaire Gay du Borgeal: La Garde Européenne en Égypte, Librairie de H. Stapelmohr, Imprimerie Taponnier et Studer, Geneva 1884.
  32. ^ a b Protokoll der Sitzung des Bundesrates vom 15. Februar 1929, 297. Le nouveau statut du St. Siège.
  33. ^ Chartrand, Rene (15 July 1997). Louis XV's Army (3). Foreign Infantry. p. 6. ISBN 1-85532-623-X.
  34. ^ Rene Chartrand, page 20, "Spanish Army of the Napoleonic Wars 1793–1808", ISBN 1-85532-763-5
  35. ^ Giorgio Franzosi, page 51 "L'Esercito delle Due Sicile", Rivista Militare 1987
  36. ^ Bundesverfassung, 12 September 1848, Artikel 11.
  37. ^ Bundesgesetz betreffend die Werbung und den Eintritt in den fremden Kriegsdienst, Artikel 1.
  38. ^ Militärstrafgesetz, as amended 13 June 1927, Artikel 94.
  39. ^ Philip Haythornthwaite, page 85 "The French Revolutionary Wars 1789–1802", ISBN 0-7137-0936-7
  40. ^ "Obituary of former "Swiss" Henry A. Ulstrup". Kristeligt Dagblad (in Danish). 28 July 2009. Retrieved 4 January 2013. The Swiss (Schweizeren) were at that time doormen at the royal palaces and thus the first to receive the royal family's private and official guests.

External links[edit]