The Swiss Guards in France

Historical background I

The Central Swiss fighters were both feared and greatly in demand in European war zones. The myth that the country’s troops were ‘unbeatable’ was fed by victories over the Habsburg cavalry in the battles of Morgarten in 1315 and Sembach in 1386. Between 1400 and 1848 many Swiss earned their living in the service of foreign powers. They fled poverty and over-population in the central cantons or followed the recruitment drives of the authorities out of a spirit of adventure and with the prospect of booty.

As elite troops, the Swiss Guards protected rulers and their residences. In France in 1471 King Louis XI began a long tradition with his ‘Hundred Swiss’, the first permanent unit in the service of a foreign ruler. The ‘Cent-suisses’ served as guards inside the royal palaces and were used primarily as a parade corps rather than for military purposes. The unit was dissolved by the French National Assembly in April 1792.

The actual Swiss Guards served outside the rooms of the palace. Louis XIII established them in 1616 as a second permanent Swiss unit at the French court. The recruitment criteria for these elite troops at the centre of power were particularly harsh. The officers all came from aristocratic families: offices were inherited. The guard regiments were a lucrative source of income. Officers and soldiers in the guard enjoyed privileges over ordinary Swiss regiments, such as higher wages or a longer period of service. Until the Revolution they served the king mainly in Paris and Versailles, and were close to the Parisian population. Many of them remained in Paris after the end of their service.

Swiss Guards were involved in the highly symbolic and history-making events of the French Revolution, as defenders of the absolutist King: the storming of the Bastille on 14 July 1789 and the storming of the Tuileries on 10 August 1792.

In the late 18th century service in foreign countries lost its attractiveness, and the Swiss Guard also encountered recruitment difficulties. The Revolutionary ideas of freedom and equal rights and the threatening situation led to disciplinary problems. From 1789 Swiss Guard soldiers began to desert. The climax of this was the mutiny of the Châteauvieux regiment in Nancy in August 1790 because of unpaid wages. The revolt was brutally suppressed, not least with the help of other Swiss regiments, and its leaders initially condemned to death before being spared in the wake of the Revolution.

The Swiss guards were the only ones who remained as personal defenders of Louis XVI until the end of his rule in 1792.