By Evan Wing
May 6, 1527: Lutheran mercenaries of the Holy Roman Empire, having mutinied against their Emperor and pillaged their way across much of northern Italy, arrive at the city of Rome.
At the time, the city had almost no defenses; the ancient walls were in disrepair, and Pope Clement VII’s call to arms was answered by only 500 men of the city. Ill-equipped and barely trained, these irregulars were quickly swept aside by the tens of thousands of troops entering the Eternal City. The invaders cut a path right to Saint Peter’s Basilica, where they suddenly were stopped by a wall of glistening pikes.
The Pontifical Swiss Guard had been called out.
Of the 189 Swiss Guards, a detachment of 42 guardsmen was at that very moment escorting the Pope to the safety of Castel Sant’Angelo along a secret underground passageway. The remainder, under Captain Kaspar Röist, made their stand near the Teutonic College next to the Basilica – less than 150 Swiss against 20,000 Germans and Spaniards.
What should have been a quick victory for the Protestants turned into a disastrous all-day engagement. Wave after wave of Lutheran troops rushed the stoic Swiss, only to be driven back time and time again. The avenues leading to the Guards’ position became so choked with the dead that their living comrades were funneled dangerously into narrow back alleys and side streets, where their superior numbers counted for nothing. Occasionally a squad of German Landsknechts, fearsome swordsmen known for their inhuman strength and flamboyant outfits, would manage to punch through the Swiss lines, only to be felled by Röist and his corps of officers, screaming murderous invective and thrusting with their rapiers. When their pikes broke, the Swiss drew their swords; when their swords dulled, they fought on with daggers, truncheons, fists, and teeth.
The Swiss Guards were killed to the last man; Röist himself was the last to fall. The Protestants suffered an estimated 15,000 casualties – three quarters of their fighting force. The last stand of the Swiss Guard allowed Pope Clement VII time to escape the Vatican, and it weakened and demoralized the mutineers to such an extent that they could not hold the city. With their backs to Saint Peter, the Swiss had saved the seat of Christendom.
To this day, new guards are sworn-in on May 6, as a potent reminder of the Guards’ vow to defend the life of the Pope at any cost.