The Mutiny of the Swiss Guards
On a singularly ominous date, one hundred years ago today, members of the Swiss Guard mutinied. The position of the Holy See, imprisoned in the Vatican since the conquest of the States of the Church, and at odds with the Savoyard Administration beyond, was perilous to say the least. It would not be for another 16 years that working relations would be established with the Italian State, so any instability within the small territory of the Vatican, much less an armed revolt, could have meant the destruction of the Papacy's temporal position, frail though it was.
There had been earlier crises. In March, 1878, the customary bounty of three months pay given to the Swiss Guard upon the election of a new Pope was demanded of Pope Leo XIII, upon a threat of mutiny and an outbreak of riot. There was talk of the suppression of the Guard but the situation was quieted by the promise of sum of money equal to an extra year's pay for each member of the Guard. The Palatine Guard, drawn from the Roman Citizenry, had seen some discontent in June, 1907, due to the severity of command by the nephew of the late Pope Leo XIII, Count Camillo Pecci. However, a more serious event was the mutiny of the Swiss Guards in July, 1913. The New York Times of 15th July, 1913 reports:
LONDON, Monday, July 14. - The Rome correspondent of The Daily News says that there has been a mutiny among the Swiss Guards at the Vatican, caused by the arrest of one of them for refusing to perform patrol duty. The insubordination has caused much annoyance to the Pope. The original rebel has been sentenced to two months' imprisonment, and the others will also be punished.
A week later the position had deteriorated. the New York Times reports:
ROME, July 20. - Several members of the Swiss Guard at the Vatican, who are charged with insubordination, proceeded this morning to the office of the Major now commanding to protest against the statement which appeared last evening in the Ossarvatore Romano, particularly that part which alluded to their possible dismissal. According to the report, the commanding officer was obliged to threaten them with a revolver before they dispersed.
By the next day, things had taken a further turn. Again, the New York Times reports:
ROME, July 21. - The Italian police are ready to intervene in case of disturbances by the Swiss guards should the Vatican authorities request their assistance in the re-establishment of order. The mutinous Swiss Guards to-day presented to Cardinal Merry del Val, the Papal Secretary of State, a memorial relating to their grievances and setting forth the conditions on which they are disposed to remain in the service. Otherwise, they declare, they are ready to leave Rome. The conditions are as follows:
1. The dismissal of the commander of the Swiss Guards.
2. An increase in the number of the Swiss Guards from 80 to 100.
3. The commander and all the officers to be chosen from among themselves.
4. The abolition of the order that the Guards shall not frequent stores on the right bank of the Tiber and the granting of permission to frequent wineshops.
5. A return to the original discipline system of military instruction, with the abolition of bayonet drill, target shooting, and the climbing of roofs to protect the Vatican from imaginary assaults.
6. No punishments to be inflicted in connection with the present agitation.
Cardinal Merry del Val afterward conferred for a long time with the Pope in an endeavor to find a satisfactory solution of the trouble.
The Swiss Guard at the Vatican has existed since 1505, when it was formed by Pope Julius II. The men are recruited from the cantons of Zurich and Lucerne, and they enlist for a term of five years. They must be at least six feet in height, and all of them belong to families in which is has become a hereditary custom to serve at the Vatican.
The next day, the New York Times also gave more sinister details:
ROME, July 21. - Another mutiny of the Swiss Vatican Guard, the third in three months, caused such trepidation to the Papal household that the Pope, in order to avert threatened bloodshed, to-day ordered the total disarmament of the guard.
The order was executed by a surprise movement on the part of the pontifical gendarmerie while the Swiss Guards were in their barracks. The few on duty had stacked all their rifles, bayonets, and halberds, and these, together with all the ammunition, were seized.
The revolt of the Swiss Guard is due to the severe military régime introduced by the new commander, Col. Repond, who insists on the drill and practice common to the great armies of Europe, although the Swiss number only 80, formerly having numbered 150.
Strong discontent also exists in the ranks of the Pope's Noble Guard because of the recent innovation whereby the Pontiff extended the recruitment to all noble families, whereas they were formerly restricted to Italy.
It is declared to-night that at one moment the possibility of an armed conflict was so great that the Pope was on the point of telephoning to the Italian Court requesting the dispatch of a squad of Carabinieri to restore order among the Pontifical army inside the Vatican.
In the New York Times of 24th July, 1913, the following report appeared:
ROME, July 23. - Throughout the day the Vatican was in a veritable state of siege. This was an outcome of the mutiny of the Swiss Guards, whose demands, in the form of a memorial relating their grievances and setting forth the conditions on which they would remain in the Pope's service, were flatly rejected to-day.
Three of the leaders of the movement were expelled from the Vatican. Four others departed to-night, and twelve have requested to leave to depart for their homes in October.
Those who left were accompanied to the gates of the Vatican by their comrades. At the moment of separation they cried "Viva Garibaldi!" and some of them joined in singing the "Marseillaise." Never before was such a scene presented in front of the Vatican.
Yesterday the Guards were relieved of their cartridges, and to-day even their rifles were taken from them, as it was discovered that they had succeeded in concealing cartridges.
Count Coceopieri, commander of the Vatican gendarmes, has been ordered to hold his men in readiness for emergencies. They are in control of all the exits and have instructions to prevent any of the Swiss Guards from leaving the building without express permission, and from communicating with those outside. The entire neighborhood is patrolled by strong forces of police.
Serious trouble was expected when the guards were notified that all their claims had been rejected, and it has been arranged that any of the Guards attempting a demonstration should be arrested by the Papal gendarmes and turned over to the Italian police for transportation to the Swiss frontier.
When the reply to the memorial was read, the commander and other officers, armed with revolvers, stood ready to suppress any show of force. A letter was also read from Cardinal Merry del Val, the Papal Secretary of State, strongly condemning the attitude of the guards.
This was the last straw, as the guards had hoped that the Cardinal would favor their side. They decided to maintain a relatively calm attitude, however, wishing, as they expressed it, "to obtain their rights through persuasion, rather than violence."
The report of the following day's New York Times is hardly more comforting:
ROME, July 24. - Cardinal Merry del Val's decision to expel the ringleaders of the mutinous Swiss Guard at the Vatican and his refusal to give satisfaction to the others until the agitation has ceased has not produced the desired effect.
A large quantity of concealed weapons and ammunition has been seized. Fearing a plot against his life, the unpopular Col. Repond, commander of the Swiss Guard, so the press states, had a quickfiring gun installed at the entrance to his appartments.
The Pope is so upset by the scandal particularly by Col. Repond's conduct in confronting a deputation of the guards with a loaded revolver, that he has signified his personal wish to abolish the Swiss Guard altogether. Since his election to the papal chair his Holiness has never ceased to express his repugnance at being everlastingly surrounded and followed about by armed men.
Lest there should be a fresh outbreak, the Vatican authorities have arranged with the Italian Government that pontifical gendarmerie shall drive out the Swiss rebels into the Piazza of St. peter's, where they will be captured by a big force of Italian carabinieri stationed there for emergencies. The men will then be sent on the first outgoing train to the Italian-Swiss frontier.
The whole story was reprised in the New York Times of 27th July, 1913, with a full set of pictures. The first set of colours was awarded to the Swiss Guards on 1st November, 1913, and was blessed by Pope St. Pius X on 5th May, 1914. Also in 1914, Col. Repond, who was to command the Guard until 1921, designed the now familiar gala uniform.
A similar incident involving the Papal Gendarmes was quelled immediately by Msgr. Pizzardo, Under Secretary of State and an armed detatchment of Swiss Guards on 7th July, 1922.
Sancte Pie Decime, Gloriosae Patronae, ora pro nobis!
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