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“Cent-Suisses,” cousins of the Swiss Guard, visit Vatican

The Cent-Suisses in St. Peter's Square

© Camille Dalmas/I.MEDIA

I.Media - published on 05/09/24

The Cent-Suisses today are a Swiss non-military corps, a symbolic and ceremonial revival of a mercenary corps that once served the kings of France.

From May 6 to 8, 2024, the famous Pontifical Swiss Guard welcomed another Swiss “elite corps” to the Vatican: the Cent-Suisses (Hundred Swiss), a “corps” of extras usually working at Vevey’s famous Fête des Vignerons (Winegrowers’ Festival). This happy, peaceful brotherhood, with its close “family ties” to the pontiff’s personal guard, was received with great pomp in the world’s smallest state.

May 8, 2024 - The Cent-Suisses at the Vatican

Swiss guards, but not “the” Swiss Guard

In St. Peter’s Square, where they paraded on May 8 to the sound of their fifes and drums, the 50 or so stalwarts of the Cent-Suisses corps did not go unnoticed. Not without confusion: they’re Swiss, they too wear striped uniforms modeled on those of the Italian Renaissance with a red plume, and they’re armed with a glittering halberd. “It’s the Swiss Guards!” exclaimed an Italian woman, who, like many others, came to admire this company’s proud march at close quarters.

“In a way, she wasn’t wrong,” says with a laugh Stéphane Krebs, commander of this unique company. “We’re Swiss guards, but not ‘the’ Swiss Guard,” he stresses, explaining that the style of his corps’ red-and-white uniform was inspired by that of the pontiffs’ personal army.

The Cent-Suisses in St. Peter's Square

The Cent-Suisses troop has existed since 1865, taking its name from one of the many elite mercenary corps provided by the Swiss Confederation throughout its history. The Cent-Suisses were the elite corps of the kings of France between 1471 and 1792, when they were massacred by revolutionaries defending Louis XVI in the Tuileries. The corps was temporarily revived between 1814 and 1830, and exported to other kingdoms.

The Cent-Suisses today

Today’s Company of the Cent-Suisses, dressed in the national colors of red and white, is a non-military “elite corps” taking part in Vevey’s famous Fête des Vignerons. This event is a traditional festivity held just four or five times a century in the Valais town on the shores of Lake Geneva since it was first held in 1819. Since 2016, it has been recognized as UNESCO intangible cultural heritage.

“Joining the Cent-Suisses is easier than joining the Swiss Guard,” says Stéphane Krebs. To serve under him, all you need to do is come from the Vevey region and be over 1.80m (5’11”) tall. Knowing someone in the organization of the Fête des Vignerons can also help. And it’s less strenuous than the Swiss Guard, too, since the service takes place roughly every 15 to 30 years — the next edition is likely to take place in 2035.

Reciprocal visits

Alexandre Furrer was a Swiss Guard from 2016 to 2021. He obtained a dispensation to join the Cent-Suisses in 2019 to participate in that year’s Fête des Vignerons, which celebrated the bicentenary of the festival. It was a very emotional event for him, as he wore two hats; on that occasion, the Swiss Guard was the guest of honor on the main day of the event, August 1.

The red and white soldiers gave them a “warm welcome,” he says, “and the Swiss Guard had originally planned to return the favor in 2020, but the pandemic put an end to the project, and we then waited a long time for a new invitation … It finally happened, and I must say we were very well received,” he enthuses, recognizing the privileged status afforded them by the presence of the Swiss Guard within the Vatican.

Stéphane Krebs, the commander of the Cent-Suisses
Stéphane Krebs, commander of the Cent-Suisses

The program for this trip, which had been in the pipeline for a year, was full to the brim. Arriving on the night of Sunday, May 5, the Cent-Suisses took pride of place at the swearing-in ceremony for their compatriots in the Papal Guard. The following day, they enjoyed a guided tour of the Vatican, visiting the Swiss Guard quarters, climbing to the top of the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica, and passing through the gardens of the small state.

An emotional meeting with the Pope

Finally, on Wednesday, they were able to attend the general audience from a prominent position, seated right in front of the Pope at the foot of the forecourt of St. Peter’s Basilica. At the end of the event, the Cent-Suisses greeted the Pontiff and took a photo with him.

“It was a very powerful moment, one of the most powerful I’ve ever experienced,” admitted a visibly moved Stéphane Krebs shortly after the meeting. “The Pope simply thanked us,” he says.

He offered the Pope a dove specially forged for the occasion by local Swiss artist Bertille Laguet, who usually makes their weapons. “A dove, because he’s a pope of peace,” explains the commander.

May 8, 2024 - The Cent-Suisses in St. Peter's Square

After the general audience, the Cent-Suisses paraded through St. Peter’s Square and then on to the Swiss Guard’s quarters, in ranks and to music, as thousands of pilgrims and tourists looked on in admiration and amazement. “We feel a bit at home,” said a delighted Charles, 72, a former member of the Cent-Suisses, who had come to accompany his comrades.

In the courtyard of the Swiss Guard, before leaving for home in the evening, the red and white soldiers celebrated their friendship with the blue, gold, and red guards one last time. And Major Krebs solemnly presented Swiss Guard Commander Christoph Graf with a traditional engraved alpine bell to commemorate their friendship.

The Cent-Suisses at the Vatican

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