On May 6, 1527, Pope Clement VII was running for his life. Spirited through a secret passage in the wall of St. Peter’s Basilica, he fled for 800 meters down the Passetto di Borgo, a narrow, arched corridor that runs within the Vatican City’s exterior wall. Behind him, an invading army was committing the harshest atrocities upon the Eternal City in its existence.
Four years earlier, Pope Adrian VI died, and Cardinal Giulio d’Giuliano de Medici became Pope Clement VII (right), inheriting a tenuous political position. War was raging between King Francis I of France and Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire, and Clement was not only chronically ill, but, despite being naturally intelligent and harboring the greatest of intentions, he was neither experienced nor ruthless enough to navigate the dangerous waters of medieval wartime politics. The new Pope allied with Catholic France first, but when Francis I was captured in 1525, he then sided with Charles. By this point, ten years had passed since Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses, and Charles was being forced to acquiesce to a growing Protestant populace, many of which wanted to violently overthrow the Catholic hierarchy. Although the Emperor himself was a good Catholic, and this sort of rage and revolution was contrary to Martin Luther’s own hopes, much of the Lutheran population had their eyes set on revenge against the hallmarks of Catholicism - namely, the Pope and the city of Rome. Their passions were stirred even more when Francis was released in 1526, and Clement rejoined with France in the anti-Hapsburg League of Cognac.
Charles - the prominent heir of the Hapsburg dynasty - was infuriated. He attempted, however, to forestall the need for war by signing an eight-month peace treaty with Pope Clement, the terms for which also entailed the Vatican paying the Empire a sum of 60,000 ducats - money which Charles desperately needed. In the meantime, Charles’s army, who had not been paid in some time and who were largely anti-Catholic Lutherans - heard of this, they enlisted (or perhaps forced) the Duc de Bourbon, formerly Constable of France, to lead them south to the rich, fat, and undefended city of Rome.
Clement was relying on the strength of the peace treaty and the assistance of France to defend his city; neither held true. The Imperial army - including Spanish Catholics, Italian merceneries, and the flamboyant and much-feared Landsknechts, who wielded pikes, great swords, and medieval firearms - reached the walls of Rome and, shrouded by a morning fog, began its siege. The Duc de Bourbon commanded that the Pope must be captured for ransom, and the city must not be sacked, but he was almost immediately shot and killed as he was climbing a ladder. The army, now without leadership or restraint, stormed the walls. Their chaos spread in across the city like a wave.
Clement’s first intention was to encounter the invaders in his his full splendor, and to that end he dressed in his finest regalia. He was at Mass when he heard the blares of cannon, and the cries of the patients in the nearby Santo Spirito Hospital, who were being slaughtered by the invaders. Before long he succumbed to a combination of reason and the insistence of his entourage, and he fled.
The Pope - still in his flowing, scarlet robes - had to be literally carried through the secret exit, because he was sick and too weak to stand on his own. One of his cardinals flung a cloak over the Pontiff’s head, lest he be recognized and shot through the corridor’s windows. Another carried the train of his robes as they fled down the corridor.
The Commander of the Pontificia Helvetiorum Cohors - the Pontifical Swiss Guard - was Kaspar Röist, whose father, Colonel Markus Röist, had previously served in the same position. Kaspar assembled his small force of men and prepared to hold off the invaders as long as possible, to allow the Pontiff to escape. 42 of the Guard, led by Hercules Goldli, escorted the Pope, while the remaining 147 remained behind to protect the single entry into the Basilica. They made their stand at the foot of the obelisk, which at that time was just outside the graveyard of the Campio Santo Teutonico, or German College, to the left of the Basilica. Röist’s wife, Elizabeth Klingler, watched from an overhead window as her husband was mortally wounded by Spanish troops. Röist’s men reverently carried their Commander’s body to his house, and gently laid him on his bed to die, only to have more of the marauders break in and hack his body to pieces; Elizabeth tried to shield his body from them, and she lost several fingers as a result. The remainder of the Swiss Guard retreated and reorganized on the steps of the Basilica, and were massacred where they stood. The last of Röist’s 147 men died on the Altar of St. Peter, after having inflicted about 900 casualties amongst their enemies.
Pope Clement had been watching the Swiss Guard’s last stand through the windows of the Passetta, and wept as he did. He finally reached the Castel Sant’Angelo, a virtually impregnable Roman-era fortress only about 1000 feet from the Basilica, and while there he was insulated from the rampaging hordes. The invaders sacked the city for eight days, defiling relics, looting holy sites, torturing priests (including the future Pope Julian III), raping nuns, and murdering anyone, including orphaned children and hospital patients. One of the soldiers broke the head off of the spear said to have punctured the side of Christ, and mounted it derisively on his own, and others looted St. Peter’s tomb. About 12,000 people died, with about 2,000 of their bodies thrown into the Tiber River.
Eventually, the sacking did end, but the occupation continued. The plague hit the city during the summer, and at about the same time, Pope Clement VII finally surrendered. He agreed to turn several cities and a large amount of money over to the Holy Roman Emperor but he remained a prisoner within the Castle Sant’Angelo until he escaped in December by dressing as a peasant. By the time the occupation ended in about February of the next year, the Swiss Guard had been disbanded in favor of 200 German Landsknecht, the glory of Renaissance Rome had come to a permanent end, and Protestantism had taken a great leap forward on the world stage. Clement returned to Rome in February of 1528 and was immediately swept up in another watershed moment in the progression of Protestantism, as envoys of Henry VIII of England had been waiting to petition the Pope to annul the English King’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon - who, perhaps not incidentally, was the aunt of Charles V. Clement would deny the petition, leading Henry to later split from the Catholic church.
While the name of Kaspar Röist and the heroics of the Swiss Guard on May 6, 1527, have been largely forgotten, the Swiss Guard’s position in the Vatican was reinstated in 1548 under Clement’s successor, Paul III. Today, if you are a celibate single Swiss Catholic male between 19 and 30 years old and over 174 cm tall (a little over 5’8”), and if you have completed the Swiss military’s basic training, you can apply to become a Pontifical Swiss Guard. Every year new recruits are sworn in on May 6, the anniversary of the last stand, and their sole duty is to protect the life of the Pope at all costs.
Links and Sources:
Wikipedia pages for Pope Clement VII, Charles V, the Passetto di Borgo,the Sack of Rome, and the stand of the Swiss Guard.
Italian Wikipedia page for Kaspar Röist.
“The Sack of Rome in 1527”, on the Website of the Pontifical Swiss Guards, retrieved March 12, 2012.
”The Sack of Rome: 1527, 1776”, by Dr. John C. Rao, on Seattle Catholic, retrieved March 12, 2012.
”1527: The Sack of Rome”, on Salem Press, retrieved March 12, 2012.
”Five Hundred Years of Loyalty: The Gallantry of the Pope’s Swiss Guard”, by Eleanore Villarrubia, on www.catholicism.org, retrieved March 12, 2012.
“Pope Clement VII” in The Catholic Encyclopedia (1913).
A Traveler in Rome, by H.V. Morton, Da Capo Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1957.
Image of Pope Clement VII from the Museo di Capodimonte, Naples, Italy.
Image of Pontifical Swiss Guard by Reuters.
Image of Passetto by Raja Patnaik, posted on Wikimedia Commons.