Resplendent in their striped knickerbockers and clutching murderous-looking halberds, they have faithfully defended popes for more than 500 years.
But the Swiss Guard, the world’s smallest army with just 140 soldiers, is considering the previously unthinkable – opening up to female soldiers.
A bastion of conservatism even by the standards of the Vatican, the Swiss Guard has been a celebrated institution ever since its foundation in 1506. Recruits to the ancient corps must be single, practicing Catholics of Swiss nationality, aged between 19 and 30.
They must serve for a minimum of two years, protecting the Pope and standing ramrod straight in sentry boxes outside St Peter’s Basilica. Now comes a potential revolution – the tiny corps has announced that it is having a new barracks built within the walls of the Vatican and that it will be able to accommodate female soldiers.
Currently, the existing barracks are so cramped that some members of the miniature army have to live outside the sovereign city state. Within the barracks, two or even three guardsmen have to share a room.
The new barracks, which will cost 50m Swiss francs (€46m), will allow the entire corps to live inside the Vatican and will feature individual rooms with bathrooms.
“It means that in future, if the decision is taken, we would be able to accommodate women as well,” Lt Urs Breitenmoser, a spokesman for the Swiss Guard, said.
“That decision has not been taken yet and it lies with our superiors and ultimately Pope Francis. Regulations would have to be changed.”
A future move to recruit women soldiers would chime with the Pope’s insistence that women play a greater role in the life of the Catholic Church, Lt Breitenmoser said.
Adapting the guardsmen’s helmets and breastplates to female soldiers should not be too challenging. These days they are made not of beaten metal but plastic, produced by 3D printers. They are much lighter than their old metal counterparts, which w ere particularly onerous to wear during Rome’s hot summers.
“It was important to us that the new building provide space for women,” Jean-Pierre Roth, from the Swiss Guard Foundation which supports the corps financially said . (©Telegraph Media Group Ltd 2021)
Telegraph Media Group Limited