Swiss history: When Switzerland was a nation of warriors

It is hard to imagine a time when Switzerland was not peaceful. But in the Middle Ages, the country was a military power and its soldiers could be hired for money.

Swiss history: When Switzerland was a nation of warriors
Swiss guards at the Vatican were once mercenaries. Photo by ANDREAS SOLARO / AFP

Late in the medieval times, it became fashionable to recruit Helvetian (as the Swiss were then known) mercenaries as special military units. No country provided as many mercenaries as Switzerland.

The Swiss soldiers were famous for their discipline and military skills, and were often hired to protect European monarchs and other dignitaries.

In fact, they started guarding Pope Julius II in 1506, beginning a tradition of Swiss Papal Guards that continues to this day.

But the soldiers were also engaged in armed combat, fighting on the side of those who paid them the most.

Since this was an easy way for young, healthy people to earn some cash, so many men became mercenaries — some historical records put that number at more than a million —that there was a shortage of farmhands in Switzerland as a result.

That was, of course, long before the Swiss army knife was invented, and the soldiers fought with a pike — a long thrusting spear that could inflict a lot of damage on the enemy. 

According to contemporary military experts, “the Swiss could take a cavalry charge of infantry, and march it around a battlefield. What do you do with 100 people armed with long pointy sticks? March them into the enemy that’s what. The Swiss were very good at this. There was no counter to a well ordered Swiss square charging into your troops. It was responsive enough to be very difficult to outflank and very deadly from the front”.

During the 1500s and 1600s, the Helvetians fought in quite a few battles for other countries, including for the French in the Burgundian and Italian Wars, and at the Battle of Novara.

Swiss mercenaries who fought in foreign armies could be called home if Switzerland ever got attacked. But that never happened, and over the next several centuries the country transitioned from a warrior nation to a neutral one it is today.

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.


Travel in Switzerland: Geneva airport launches more Christmas flights

An increased number of flights will link the Swiss city with dozens of international destinations.

Travel in Switzerland: Geneva airport launches more Christmas flights
SWISS and EasyJet will fly to 70 destinations. Photo by AFP

Starting on December 19th, the timetable from Geneva’s Cointrin airport will be expanded to include 70 cities.

Most flights will be operated by EasyJet and SWISS.

The flagship airline will jet to 15 cities, including two new destinations — Marrakech in Morocco and Hurghada in Egypt.

EasyJet will fly to 40 cities in Europe. It will ensure nonstop flights to Spain, Portugal, France, and Greece, among other popular destinations.

It will also be possible to fly again to many regions of central and eastern Europe, where flights were discontinued or sharply reduced during the pandemic.

They include Moscow and St. Petersburg in Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, Serbia, and Kosovo.

Before you book a flight, however, be aware of most recent regulations and restrictions that are in effect at your destination.

READ MORE: Covid-19: What you need to know if you are travelling abroad from Switzerland

Some countries require you to be tested for Covid-19 prior to arrival and present a negative result. Others have a compulsory quarantine.

Switzerland also requires arrivals from certain countries to self-quarantine for 10 days. 

Whether on arrival or return, quarantine means you won’t be able to go out or receive guests during the time mandated by the government — usually between 10 and 14 days.