Rome’s Darkest Hour
On May 6, 1527, Pope Clement VII ran 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 committed the harshest atrocities upon the Eternal City in its existence.
Four years earlier, following the death of Pope Adrian VI, Cardinal Giulio d’Giuliano de Medici became Pope Clement VII, inheriting a tenuous political position. War raged 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 possesses neither the experience nor the ruthlessness necessary 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 changed allegiance and sided with Charles.
Additionally, the sentiments of the German people were growing increasingly Protestant since Martin Luther had published his Ninety-Five Theses ten years earlier, and many of Charles’s subjects wanted to violently overthrow the Catholic hierarchy. Although the Emperor himself remained a staunch Catholic, and Luther himself dissuaded rage and revolution, much of the Lutheran population had their eyes set on revenge against the hallmarks of Catholicism, especially the Pope and the city of Rome. Their passions were stirred even more when Charles released Francis from his imprisonment after forcing the latter to a series of drastic political concessions; following the release, the Pope rejoined with Francis in the anti-Hapsburg League of Cognac.
Charles—the prominent heir of the Hapsburg dynasty—was infuriated. Despite his rage, he attempted 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, 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, and in retaliation, 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 relied on the strength of the peace treaty and the assistance of France to defend his city, but neither held true. The Imperial army, including Spanish Catholics, Italian mercenaries, and the flamboyant and much-feared Landsknechts, wielding pikes, great swords, and medieval firearms, reached the walls of Rome, and shrouded by a morning fog, they began their 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 by city defenders as he scaled a ladder. The army, now without leadership or restraint, stormed the walls, and their chaos spread in across the city like a wave.
The Pope heard the blares of cannon while at Mass. Despite being sick and nearly too weak to move, he dressed in his finest regalia, intending to first encounter the invaders in his full splendor in an attempt to impress them into calm. Upon hearing the cries in the nearby Santo Spirito Hospital, where the invaders were slaughtering the patients, he succumbed to a combination of reason and the insistence of his entourage, and he fled. The Pope, still in his flowing scarlet robes but too weak to move on his own, had to be literally carried through the secret exit in the walls of St. Peter’s Basilica. 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 Passetto di Borgo, a long, stone corridor extending above the streets of Rome and away from the Basilica.
Meanwhile, Kaspar Röist, the Commander of the Pontificia Helvetiorum Cohors, or the Pontifical Swiss Guard, assembled his small force of men. Roist’s father, Colonel Markus Röist, had served in the same position, so he was well prepared to lead his men to hold off the invaders as long as possible in order to protect the Pope. 42 of the Guard, led by Hercules Goldli, escorted the Pope in his escape, leaving the remaining 147, including Roist, to protect the single entry into the Basilica.
The Swiss Guard 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. The men fought bravely, but the sheer numbers of raiders ultimately overwhelmed their position. Röist’s wife, Elizabeth Klingler, watched from an overhead window as her husband was grievously wounded by Spanish troops. Röist’s men reverently carried their Commander’s body to his house, and gently laid him on his bed with his wife at his side, 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 the 147 Pontifical Swiss Guard 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 Passetto, and wept as he did. Goldli and the 42 Swiss Guard escorting the Pope defended the entourage from invaders which were pursuing them down the corridor. The Pope finally reached the passageway’s terminus at 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 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 Roman residents died at the hands of the invaders, with about 2,000 of their bodies thrown into the Tiber River.
Eventually, the sacking ended, but the occupation continued. Pope Clement remained in his fortress for about a month before surrendering; he agreed to turn several cities and a large amount of money over to the Holy Roman Emperor in return, but he remained confined within the Castel Sant’Angelo before escaping in December by dressing as a peasant. By the time the occupation ended in about February of 1528, 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 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 subsequently denied 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.
Links and Sources:
“The Sack of Rome in 1527”, on the Website of the Pontifical Swiss Guards, retrieved March 12, 2012. (In Italian.)
”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.