The Swiss Guard was founded in 1505 by Pope Julius II as a stable and disciplined corps of regular Swiss soldiers depending directly on the Holy See, for the guarding of the person of the Roman Pontiff and the Apostolic Palaces. January 21, 1506, is considered the official founding when 150 Swiss soldiers arrived in Rome and received the solemn blessing of Pope Julius II upon their arrival in St. Peter's Square.
In the early years, the corps was disbanded several times, and the guards had to retire, especially during the imprisonment or exile of the Popes.
During the Sack of Rome on May 6, 1527, when heroically fighting against the troops of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, 147 Swiss Guards died alongside then-commander Kaspar Roist, while 42 were saved with Clement Vll (Giulio de' Medici) in Castle San Angelo.
On May 6 of each year, in commemoration of this historical date, the newly recruited members of the Swiss Guard are sworn in the San Damasco Courtyard in the Vatican, in four different languages - German, French, Italian and Ladino - according to their canton of origin. As they take their oath promising fidelity to the Pope and the Church, the soldiers raise three fingers of their right hand, symbolizing the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, while placing their left hand on the flag of the Swiss Guard Corps. This banner is formed by three shields representing the current Pope, the founder of the Swiss Guard, Julius II, and the commander.
The Swiss Guard, the world's smallest and perhaps most colorful army, has been the chief protectors of the pontiff. Clad in Renaissance helmets and blue, red and yellow tunics (the colors of the Medici family) that are said to have been designed by Michelangelo. For routine work, the guards wear blue uniforms and berets.
The Swiss Guard currently consists of a total of 100 men: 4 officials, 1 chaplain, 23 noncommissioned officers, 70 halbardiers, and 2 drummers. The halbard is the traditional weapon carried by Swiss Guards. The members of the Swiss Guard reside in a barrack in Vatican City. They serve for two years, with the possibility of extending the period to a maximum of 25 years. During this period they receive training in self-defence, attend shooting practice, take course in Italian and study the organizational structure of the Vatican. At the end of the first year they must take a very thorough exam.
Guard recruits must be Roman Catholic men of Swiss nationality who are single, under 30 years old and stand at least 5-feet, 8-inches tall. Guards need to have completed their initial military training in the Swiss Armed Forces, and obtained a certificate of good conduct from an ecclesiastical and a civil authority.
The Swiss Guard is all that is left of a pontifical military corps that medieval popes once fielded to exert temporal power on a part of the Italian peninsula - power that is now restricted to the 108 acres of Vatican City.