May 6, 1527 - The Sack of Rome and the Last Stand of the Swiss Guard
Updated: Jun 12, 2021
May 6, 1527. A horde of mercenaries 10,000 strong, enraged by the death of their leader, descends on Renaissance Rome intent on plunder and destruction. Rome is practically defenseless, and the Pope is on the verge of being captured. Between the Holy Father and the marauding soldiers stand 189 Swiss Guards, and on the steps of the Vatican they will make one of the great last stands of history.
Europe in the 1520s was what you might call “nuts.” The Renaissance was redefining how people thought about the self, humanity, beauty and life. The Protestant Reformation was challenging how an entire continent thought about God, morality, and human existence.
The Italian Wars were bringing the nations kicking and screaming into the modern age of gunpowder warfare, great power politics, sieges and battles and conflicts on an unprecedented scale. It was also, in many ways, the eclipse of the power of the Pope.
The Papal States were a decent-sized country controlling a large portion of central Italy centered around Rome. In these States, the Pope was not just a religious leader but functioned like a King. For the last several centuries, Popes had been trying to gain power on Earth as well as power under Heaven, and they had used the resources of the Papal States to make themselves key power brokers in Europe.
Pope Clement VII had become Pope in 1523, coming to power with a reputation as a reformer and administrator. Unlike the recent run of corrupt Popes, he was a decent man, less interested in trying to use his power for earthly gain than in promoting peace in Europe and independence for the Italian States. He was progressive for his time, even personally approving of Nicolaus Copernicus’s theory that the Earth revolved around the sun – a century before Galileo’s trial for promoting the same beliefs. Clement was also interested in using his power to end the endless wars that had plagued Italy for the last several decades.
France was fighting the Habsburg family for control of Italy, and the Habsburgs were doing quite well. Holy Roman Emperor Charles V was also King of Spain, and if he gained dominance over Italy he would threaten the Pope’s power. The Popes and Holy Roman Emperors had always fought over who would lead Christianity into the future, and this was no exception.
The Protestant Reformation also shook matters up. Martin Luther’s denunciation of the Catholic Church had turned into a full-fledged division of the Church, and in doing so undermined the Pope’s spiritual power. Despite Luther trying to make peace with Rome, many of his Protestant followers wanted revenge on the Pope for years of persecutions. Pope Clement, always an idealist, vainly tried to seal the breach in the Church, but failed to realize how much the Pope’s spiritual authority had been undermined by the Reformation.
By 1526, Charles V and his Imperial-Spanish Army had clearly gained the upper hand in Italy, and had delivered a crushing defeat to the French at Pavia in 1525 – one of the great decisive battle of history that I did NOT get to this year because it was A.) too complicated and B.) on the same day as the Zimmerman Telegram. Pope Clement was alarmed by this turn of events, and decided that he needed the Holy Roman Emperor kicked out of Italy. He signed the League of Cognac with France – Charles V’s arch-enemy - in 1526, along with other key Italian countries like Genoa, Milan, Venice and Florence.
Pope Clement, however, hadn’t reckoned on how big Charles’s army was. Charles had the invincible Spanish tercios, the infantry units that had dominated European warfare ever since Gonzalo Cordoba’s victory at Cerignola in 1503 (see my April 28 post) along with 14,000 Landsknecht mercenaries from Germany. These professional mercenaries, well-known for their flamboyant dress and manner of living, were a cross-section of German society – which meant many of the soldiers were Protestants with an axe to grind against Catholics and the Pope in particular.
In 1527, the Allies started the war, and immediately ran into the powerful pile-driver that was the Habsburg army. The Imperial army quickly defeated the French and drove them out of Italy, but due to the Emperor’s many expenses, money to pay the soldiers ran out fast. Kings and princes were always running short of money in this new age of war, and even Emperors sometimes came up dry. The new style of armies were all paid professionals, unlike the peasant levies and noble knights of medieval armies, and without pay they would go home.
The army convinced their beloved general, French exile Charles the Duke of Bourbon, to abandon his campaign plans and march on Rome itself. Even though the Pope had joined the war, directly attacking his lands and his city was considered a huge violation by loyal Catholics. Many of the men, though, weren’t loyal Catholics – they were penniless, hungry, and most of all angry Protestants. If Pope Clement was relying on his religious grace to preserve him from the wrath of the mercenaries, he had another thing coming.
The Duke of Bourbon began marching south, taking advantage of the chaos when revolts broke out against the Medici rulers in hostile Florence. Bypassing the rebelling city, the rabble of 20,000 heavily armed, battle-scarred mercenaries began plundering and burning their way across central Italy, sacking and burning everything in their path. They were making a direct beeline for Rome.
Rome was…not well defended. The Pope had always relied on his spiritual authority and an unspoken guarantee of honor and privilege when it came to warfare, and Pope Clement believed this would protect Rome from invasion. This was Rome at the height of the Renaissance (think Assassin’s Creed II for you gamers.) A city of 55,000 inhabitants, it was one of the great centers of artists and thinkers, encouraged by the power and influential Medici. It was here that Michelangelo had painted the Sistine Chapel, where Donatello had designed the Tomb of Giovanni Crivelli, and where many beautiful churches and libraries had been constructed under Catholic patronage.
Clement had the Roman city militia – a rabble of 5,000 armed civilians who were about as useful as scarecrows – and his Swiss Guard, and that was it. The 189 members of the Pontifical Swiss Guard were also professional mercenaries recruited from the tiny mountain country. The Swiss were the best mercenaries in Europe; tough, skilled, and unflinchingly loyal to their employer. The Papacy, knowing their reputation, requested a small contingent from the Swiss cantons, and the first Swiss Guard came to guard the Pope in 1506. The Swiss, then, were a relatively new addition to the Catholic seat of power. The events of May 6, 1527, would ensure they stayed.
The mercenaries arrived outside Rome on May 5, and immediately began trying to break through the walls. The city had decent artillery and massive walls, and the Duke of Bourbon immediately tried to find a way through. He attacked on May 6, launching his main assault directly at the Vatican on the west side of Rome. Leading the assault in his famous white cloak, the Duke led his men fearlessly, but it was pretty easy to figure out who was in charge. The Duke of Bourbon caught a bullet and died, and this death of their leader severed the last link the mercenaries had with authority. A much-beloved leader, Bourbon’s death enraged the Imperial mercenaries. Now they were a leaderless horde – a very experienced, very dangerous horde.
The mercenaries swarmed over the walls of Rome, driving away the defenders. Pope Clement, sitting in the Vatican, feared for his life. 20,000 men were pouring into Rome with murderous intent, and he was Public Enemy Number One. His only hope of survival was to flee to the Castle Sant’Angelo, a fortress within the walls of Rome that could be held by a tiny force. Sant’Angelo was only connected to the Vatican by a secret corridor, the Passetto di Borgo, and as Rome was set ablaze and the enemy soldiers stalked the streets, the Swiss Guard formed around their Holy Father.
The Swiss Guard formed up outside Saint Peter’s Basilica, the great church that still dominates the Vatican today. 189 men in their armor and pikes looked into the courtyard of the Vatican as a flood of men poured at them. Behind them, the Pope was hurrying with his staff to escape down the Passetto, and hundreds of civilians fled around their tiny formation, seeking refuge behind the Guard’s defenders. This was the Swiss Thermopylae. (At least the Spartans actually had 300 men.) It was here that they were determined to die fulfilling their oaths. Their Captain, Kaspar Roist, drew his sword as the flood came upon them.
As the Pope escaped, the 189 Swiss Guard resisted the storm of 20,000 men. The charge of the mercenaries staggered them, pushing them slowly back. The Swiss were forced to withdraw into the Teutonic Cemetery within the Vatican, where they began to fall one by one, fighting hand-to-hand among the graves and mausoleums. As they staved off the murderous horde, one group of 42 became separated and was able to retreat towards the entrance to the Passetto to defend the Pope. Captain Roist took the rest of the Guard away as a diversion, leading them back through the graves towards the front of St. Peter’s Basilica.
It was there, on the steps of St. Peter’s, that the Swiss made their final stand. Now only 147 men, they stood in a circle as the enemy army came upon them, and despite their fighting ability and bravery they were ultimately overwhelmed. Only one man – Captain Roist – escaped with a heavy wound, and he made his way to his house, pursued by his foes. There, in front of his wife, the last sacrificial lamb of the Swiss Guard was hacked down.
But they had accomplished their mission. From the Castle Sant’Angelo, the Pope watched in horror as Rome, the heart of the Renaissance, was brutally sacked by the rampaging mercenaries. Church, monasteries, palaces, and libraries were looted and destroyed. Flames spread across the city as the Protestants among the soldiers sought to destroy the symbols of Papal power and excess. Many great works of Renaissance art were lost in the ensuing storm, so many we could never catalogue them. Almost 12,000 people were murdered in the terrible Sack of Rome. Only the Vatican and its archives were spared, thanks to the protection of a few pious Catholic captains.
The aftereffects were…not what you’d expect. Due to the brutal sack, the Pope actually gained prestige through the sympathy of Europe; even Martin Luther publicly regretted the atrocity, and the Pope’s rule over the Papal States was assured. On the other hand, Pope Clement, now in Charles V’s control, was forced to rubber-stamp the Emperor’s decrees, including the denial of a divorce to one King Henry VIII of England. (Henry was trying to divorce Catherine of Aragon – Charles’s beloved aunt.)
The cultural effect was immense as well. The 1527 Sack of Rome is widely regarded as the end of the Italian Renaissance. Pope Clement’s war to drive foreign powers from Italy was the last gasp of Italian nationalism until the 1800s; from now until then, Italy would be ruled by foreigners. Rome itself was depopulated and suffered economic collapse from the terrible brutalities, and the pillaging did not end for eight months. Rome would recover, of course, but the Renaissance golden age had passed. Artists and thinkers found other places to call home.
The Swiss Guard’s last stand went down in the annals of history alongside Thermopylae and the Alamo, and the Swiss have served as the Pope’s guards ever after. Even today, they are highly skilled soldiers, recruited only from Switzerland – unmarried Catholic men who have completed Swiss basic training. Despite the weird uniforms, they are deadly – they are as well-trained on their ceremonial halberds as they are their assault rifles and hand-to-hand combat. They still guard the Pope, almost five centuries after their forbears died on the steps of St. Peter’s to do the same.
New Swiss Guards are sworn in once a year, and only on May 6 – the date of their final stand.