Thursday, April 23, 2009

Royal Guardians Profile: The Hundred Swiss

Of all the royal guardians in the world some of the most famous must be the Swiss Guards of France. Switzerland had long been renowned for its soldiers and every monarch worth his salt had to have some Swiss troops at his disposal. The tradition started in France in 1497 with the arrival of the famous "Hundred Swiss" to serve as a private protection force for the King. Later, in 1567 the French King added a complete Swiss Regiment to his Royal Army. Later these were formalized into two distinct royal guard units. The first was the Hundred Swiss who served closest to the King, inside the palace as his bodyguards. The second was the "Swiss Guard" who served outside as palace guards at the gates and keeping watch on the perimeter. Units of Swiss troops also served with the French army on campaign as regular mercenary soldiers. Today one might consider it odd for a monarch to place his personal safety in the hands of foreign troops rather than his own people, but the people could always turn on you (though rest assured he had French bodyguards too) and the Swiss mercenaries were famously loyal -so long as they were paid- and given that could always be counted on. The famous phrase, "no silver, no Swiss" did not come about for no reason. The Hundred Swiss had many famous episodes in their history since their initial employment by King Charles VIII. At the famous battle of Pavia, for instance, they fought to the death against the Spanish trying to protect King Francis I from capture.

However, their moment of immortality came on August 10, 1792 when they fought to the death defending the Tuileries Palace from the revolutionary mob for King Louis XVI. The guard fought heroically against impossible odds, losing some 600 men in the clash or from being massacred after surrender for the handful that tried. The only survivors were about a hundred men who were taken in by sympathetic Parisians and a corps of 300 that was serving in Normandy. Many of those who did live were later killed in the September Massacres anyway. It was a moment of heroic sacrifice that would never be forgotten by the royalists of France and, over a great deal of time, even the revolutionaries came to appreciate the courage and determination of the Swiss Guards. In 1821 a monument to their sacrifice and heroism was erected in Lucerne (known as the "Lion of Lucerne") which is a truly moving sight to see. After being banned for a time the Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte brought back the Swiss Regiments and the Swiss Guards returned to service when the monarchy was restored. They were dissolved during the July Revolution of 1830 and never saw service again though some of the veterans did go on to form the original core of the French Foreign Legion.


  1. So I suppose this is why no one robs Swiss banks!

    Just curious, but why don't we ever hear of them after Napolean? I have heard of them fighting to the last quite a few times, but it seems after the First French Republic they sort of disappear. Did the Swiss Cantons give up? Change of heart?

  2. The French revolutionary government passed a law against foreign mercenaries serving in France. Later on the Swiss cantons themselves made it illegal for any Swiss to serve as mercenaries in foreign armies. The only exception to this law is the special case of the "Pontifical Helvetian Cohort".

  3. My Friend,
    You have mistaken Les Cents Suisse with the les Gardes Suisses. Both were Swiss but both were different formations. Les Cents Suisse were household gaurds, Gardes de la manche, at the kings sleeve, they wore a ancient uniform which consisted of clothes more suited to the time of Henri IV; Les Gardes Suisses were an regiment of guards which is repreesnted by your print. It is a common mistake.

    In addition there were many other swiss regiments which were not guards.

    A good reference is Liliian and Fred Funkens's
    book Les Guerres en Dentel (the Lace Wars), or the Troops of Louis XV, volume 3, Foriegn Troops.

    On the web see:
    Les Cents Suisse Copy and paste this Url...

    Gardes Suisses; Copy and paste the URL...

    For Uniforms of the French army by period visit.


  4. One last thing to say...

    From my blog...

    ...On 10 August 1792, His Majesty the King and his family are removed (escape is too kind a word) from the Tuileries by the National Guard and brought before the so called "National Assembly". Within minutes of the their departure, attackers, the mob, burst through the gates of the Tuileries and confront The Swiss Guards who are in formation on the grand staircase of the palace arrayed as for battle. Their bright red uniforms and white cross belts immaculate in the sunlight.

    Shouts for the surrender arose from the crowd. One traitor who speaks German yells to the Swiss.

    "Surrender to the Nation!"…

    " We would think ourselves dishonoured! We are Swiss and we surrender only with our lives!" Comes the reply.

    The crowd becomes angry and and increasingly violent attempting to pull the soldiers of the stair case with the hooks of halberds. They succeeded with five, removing their weapons and butchered them. Then 60 of the Guard form a hollow square and force the mob back down the street. Turning a piece of the National Guards artillery back on them they fire and have the attackers running down the street.

    The King, secluded in a cramped stenographers box was told to have the Guard lay down its arms and return to the barracks. The King, who grieves at the thought of his subjects having their blood shed reluctantly agrees and orders the Guard to lay down its arms. Captain Durler of the Guard refuses to believe this order. It is madness. He asks for it in writing. He has just seen with his own eyes what the mob has done to 5 of his men moments before.

    He knows surrender means death. The King gives him the order in writing.

    Captain Durler orders his men to lay down their arms and return to the barracks. As they withdraw they are attacked, where ever they run, where ever they attempt to hide they are dragged out and murdered. No not murdered, that would be to kind a word for it, for they are hacked to pieces, women and children lustily calling for their death, whistling and cheering at each head piked, each arm severed. The heads of the guards are kicked like balls in the streets of Paris. 900 are killed in this way.

    At the end of the day no street in Paris is without it's head on a pike.

  5. I did not mistake the two, probably just wrote the thing badly. I know of both and their differences but was trying to just write a little bit on the Swiss troops who guarded the king in general without going into too much detail.

  6. is there a copy today that you can find online of the letter he wrote?


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