Tuesday, May 6, 2014

The Sack of Rome and the Papal Swiss Guard

The Sack of Rome and The Papal Swiss Guard

       Today marks the anniversary of the Sack of Rome in 1527 by troops of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor.

       Since the late 15th Century Italy (or at least the region we today identify as Italy – the notion of the region as a nation was long in the future) had been repeatedly invaded by forces from Northern Europe, each seeking to claim dominion over one area or another. Rival claimants to the crown of Naples caused as much trouble as did anything, but economic rivalry between for example Genoa and Venice did nothing to calm the waters.

       Charles’ forces were at this point battling the League of Cognac, it being comprised of France, Milan, Venice, Florence and the Papal States (keeping track of the various Leagues through the Italian Wars is a troubling task; the League of Cambrai was initially formed against Venice by the Papacy, France, Spain and the Holy Roman Empire. Later the initial members would be allied against France with Venice as an ally. Later Venice and France would be against the Papacy, Spain and the Holy Roman Empire). After a significant victory over the French army the troops were restive in that they had not been paid – most were mercenary. Pillaging Rome would be a way of paying the troops. The city was not well defended, although its formidable walls did need to be and were breached. Discipline immediately broke down among the troops and a sack of over three days began.

       The Pontifical Swiss Guard, created only in 1506 under Pope Julius II, rose to the occasion. Of its then number of 189, 147 would fall defending Pope Clement VII, affording him time to take refuge in the Castel Sant’Angelo (Hadrian’s Mausoleum). In recognition of this event, new members of the Pontifical Swiss Guard are sworn in on May 6.  Earlier today, in the continuation of that triadition, Pope Francis I officiated at the swearing in of a number of new Swiss Guards.

      There was last year an event unique to the Guard, namely the recognition of a Pope’s retirement. Benedict XVI left the Vatican as Pope, flying to the Castle Gandolfo. The Swiss Guard accompanied him to the castle and there stood guard. When the moment his resignation became effective, and Benedict became not Pope but Pope Emeritus, the Guard left their station at the castle and returned to Rome. While the Vatican has its security forces, and they no doubt continued to provide protection for Benedict, the Swiss Guard serve the Pope.

       Of course this was not the only sack of Rome – it had fallen many times in its long history. It fell to the Normans in 1084, in 546 by the Ostrogoths, in 455 by the Vandals, in 410 by the Visigoths and in 387 BC by the Gauls.

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