By Evan Wing
Did you know that, until 1970, the Holy See had its own cavalry corps?
The Pontifical Noble Guard was a regiment of heavy cavalry created by Pope Pius VII in 1801 to defend the Papal States. Much like knightly companies of the medieval and renaissance periods, members of the regiment were drawn exclusively from noble families – at first only from the nobility of Rome, but after 1903 the rules were relaxed to allow noble sons from all of Italy. The unit escorted the Pope in his travels, guarded the Holy See, and conducted special missions across the Papal States at the Pope’s request. Notably, the Noble Guard was the only all-volunteer papal military unit in history – aside from a small allowance for uniforms and gear, members received no pay.
After the dissolution of the Papal States in 1870, the Noble Guard lost their horses and became an infantry unit, though they were still referred to as cavalry due to their members’ status as noble chevaliers; they also discarded their pistols and carbines, using sabers exclusively as duty weapons. This partial disarmament was reversed at the onset of World War II, when the Noble Guard guarded Vatican City around the clock.
The Noble Guard was disbanded in 1970 as part of the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. The idea of an elite cavalry regiment drawn exclusively from noble stock was deemed “out of touch” with the current age, and the regiment’s assets were hastily seized by the Papal Secretariat of State…so hastily in fact that a planned sendoff ceremony by Pope Paul VI never had the chance to take place.
Veterans of the Noble Guard have since formed their own association, known as the Company of Broken Lances, where they preserve the memory of their illustrious regiment.