The term “Swiss Guard” is used to refer to a historical organization of elite Swiss mercenaries which were hired out to various European powers. The original Swiss Guard had a number of units, some of which went on to become quite famous, playing critical roles in European history. Today, only one unit of the Swiss Guard survives: the Papal Swiss Guard. This surviving unit is one of the oldest continuously organized military bodies in the world, organized in 1506 on the request of Pope Julius II.
Historically, the Swiss Guard were under the command of the Swiss Cantons, the administrative districts of Switzerland. They used the Swiss Guard as a political tool, backing allegiances and trade agreements by hiring their mercenaries out. Countries which contracted for units of the Swiss Guard would pay in both trade goods and hard currency, and these resources were in turn used by the leaders of the Cantons.
One notable unit of the Swiss Guard was the Hundred Guard, which served in the court of France from the late 1400s to the early 1800s. The Hundred Guard were notably involved in the French Revolution, attempting to defend Tuileries Palace and ultimately being defeated by the revolutionary forces. Numerous other European courts used the Swiss Guard in varying numbers, relying on these extremely skilled soldiers for defense.
The Papal Swiss Guard is often a subject of interest for visitors to the Vatican, thanks to their extremely colorful Renaissance-inspired uniforms. While members of the Swiss Guard on duty in the Vatican may seem rather outlandish, they are in fact very skilled soldiers with military experience, and in addition to performing ceremonial duties, they play an active role in the protection of His Holiness the Pope.
In 2006, the Papal Swiss Guard celebrated its 500 year anniversary with a number of ceremonies and events, commemorating the long history of the Swiss Guards at the Vatican. Men who are accepted into the Swiss Guard at the Vatican must be Catholic, with military experience, and of good character. They are also, by tradition, Swiss citizens, and they are typically very dedicated and talented, as being a bodyguard to the Pope is considered an immense honor.