Dead Pope sent up the river
Former Pope Formosus sat silently through his trial, charged by Pope Stephen VII* of several crimes, including having acceded to the papacy illegally.
He did not question the legality of the proceedings, nor did he answer to the mostly bogus charges against him. He was not allowed to testify on his behalf. Even when found guilty of all charges, he remained mute.
Not so much as a whisper emerged from his lips when his judge and accuser, Stephen himself, angrily declared all of his papal appointments and ordinations void, stripped him of his vestments and even cut three fingers off his right hand. With grim and resigned indifference, Formosus never even blinked.
There was a good reason — Formosus was a rotting corpse, having been dead for over eight months.
According to historian and writer Amelia Soth, being elected Pope prior to 1000 AD was not unlike being diagnosed with a fatal illness.
In that politically chaotic time, skillful political maneuvering could extend even the most faltering papacy but the final prognosis was never positive or upbeat. Since the successors to St. Peter had the power to crown the Holy Roman Emperor, any hapless archbishop or clergyman elected pope suddenly found himself plunged into a high-stakes gambit of conspiracy and intrigue with their own life squarely in the crosshairs of mortal enemies.
This period, according to Richard McBrien’s 1997 book “Lives of the Popes” was “marred by papal corruption (including the buying and selling of church offices, nepotism, lavish lifestyles, concubinage, brutality, even murder) and the domination of the papacy by German kings and by powerful Roman families.” Like in a revolving door, immoral, corrupt, even depraved popes came and went, with many dying mysteriously sometimes within days of their election. In the 94 years from 872 AD to 965 AD, there were a total of 24 popes, with nine alone during the nine years between 896 and 904. Seven of the 24 died violently.
Another reason for the high turnover was the result of ongoing socio-political turmoil in western Europe. Attacked from the north by the Vikings, and from the south by Muslims, the once-dominant Carolingian Empire collapsed, and, after about seven years of incompetent rule, Emperor Charles the Fat was deposed.
His death just days later created a leadership vacuum that no dominant leader was willing to fill. Historian Regino of Prum wrote in the year 888 that “After [Charles the Fat’s] death the kingdoms which had obeyed his authority, just as though a legitimate heir were lacking, dissolved into separate parts and, without waiting for a natural lord, each decided to create a king from its own guts.”
While these various European rivals sparred, they immersed themselves in papal politics because the coronation of Charlemagne in the year 800 decreed that the papacy was considered the only legitimate governing body that could officially name the Emperor. Historian Michael Edward Moore wrote that by the mid-800s, the ability of popes to anoint emperors was proving to be more of a curse than a blessing. “Because of their ability to crown the emperor of the west, and their position at the center of the political and religious world, the popes were engulfed in the violent politics of this period of rapid change.”
Formosus makes enemies for doing his job
Pope Formosus’ papacy from 891–896 was born amid this mayhem. Earlier, in 864 during the pontificate of Pope Nicholas I, Formosus was made cardinal bishop of Porto-Santa Rufina.
After much successful missionary activity and many conversions to Catholicism among the Bulgarians, they requested that he serve as their bishop. Nicholas refused to give permission because the appointment would have required Formosus to leave his current position, and the Second Council of Nicaea forbade a bishop from leaving one see to administer another.
But his success with the Bulgarians also made him some enemies within the Papal court. After the appointment of Pope John VIII in 872, he was wrongfully accused of plotting to become the Archbishop of Bulgaria, and of secretly coveting the Papacy.
He was thus anathematized, excommunicated by Pope John, and forced to flee to France. However, when John VIII died in 882, Formosus was restored to his bishopric by Pope Martin II (882–884).
Habemus papam … again
With his reputation and old job reinstated, Formosus was unanimously elected pope on October 6, 891 after the abbreviated reigns of Adrian III (884–885) and Stephen VI (885–891).
Formosus despised reigning Emperor Guy III of Spoleto because of his powerful family’s hostility toward his Pontificate, and one of his first tasks was to begin building support against him. Realizing what was happening, Guy tactfully forced Formosus in April, 892 to crown his son Lambert as co-emperor. He did so reluctantly, but the following year Formosus persuaded Arnulf of Carinthia to liberate Italy from Guy’s control.
Two years later, in 894, Arnulf’s army occupied all territories north of the Po River. In February 896 Arnulf arrived in Rome and seized the city, which at the time was a grim shadow of its former grand self and was falling into ruinous slums, with indigent residents clustered in small filthy neighborhoods. The very next day, Formosus crowned Arnulf the latest Roman Emperor in St. Peter’s Basilica, perhaps under duress from Arnulf himself, according to some Papal historians.
After a skirmish with the Saracens, and after appointing his future nemesis Stephen the bishop of Anagni possibly against his will, Formosus died somewhat suspiciously on April 4, 896. He was buried in a local church and was quickly succeeded by Boniface VI, whose papacy lasted between 15 and 25 days before he died (also mysteriously) of gout.
Some claim he was murdered to make way for Stephen VII, the candidate of the Spoletan party and a vicious rival of Formosus. Also, around this same time, Emperor Arnulf suffered a stroke and died on December 8, 899.
White smoke mad pope
In January of 897, Pope Stephen VII (considered by many at the time as a violent, unhinged tyrant, elected via bribery and threats) initiated a personal policy of payback when he ordered the tomb of Formosus opened and his partially decomposed body exhumed.
He wanted the former Pope put on trial not just for appointing King Arnulf as Emperor, but with breaking canon law, perjury, of illegally serving as a bishop and worse, for having “coveted the papacy” for years. It is also widely believed Stephen feared the wrath of Lambert, the son of Emperor Guy III, thus the act of putting the corpse of Formosus on trial was a sort of ghoulish peace offering as well as satisfying his own sense of vengeance.
This “Cadaver Synod” (Synodus Horrenda) is considered the lowest of numerous low points in this era of the papacy. Clad in his “sacerdotal vestments,” and with fouled blood reportedly gurgling from his lifeless, gaping mouth, Formosus’ battered, putrefying corpse was propped up on a throne, and a terrified teenage deacon was appointed to speak on his behalf in full view of a gallery of clergy and witnesses at the Basilica of St. John Lateran.
Periodically, helpers had to step in and prop Formosus back up when he began to slump.
While there is no trial transcript (it was believed destroyed during the papacy of Theodore II), a chronicler named Liutprand of Cremona recorded that Pope Stephen VII not only shouted questions in a frenzied tirade but demanded answers from his deceased predecessor.
“When you were bishop of Porto, why did you usurp the universal Roman See in such a spirit of ambition?” he bellowed, drawing a weak and trembling denial from the deacon defense. Another chronicler and eyewitness clergy named Auxilius wrote that “… Pope Stephen acted like a wild beast, unmindful of humanity.”
To add insult to injury, an earthquake either literal or metaphorical rocked Rome during the gruesome trial. “For the stones themselves, execrating such a monstrosity, then cried out with their own voice by knocking against each other, that they would more willingly suffer spontaneous ruin, than that the Roman Church should remain depressed by so great a scandal,” wrote French Jesuit historians Philippe Labbe and Gabriel Cossart in Sacrosancta concilia ad regiam editionem exacta. “It happened, then, that the sacred Basilica of the Lateran … fell prostrate from the altar to the door, an evil angel striking it; because the walls were by no means able to stand, when the first rock of the hinge was shaken by the earthquake of so great a crime.”
After several hours of screaming and hurling insults at a flaccid corpse, the subjugated clergy found Formosus guilty on all counts. In sentencing, Stephen then decreed that all of Formosus’ acts and ordinations be invalidated, that the three fingers of his right hand used to give papal blessings be sawed off, and that the body be stripped of its vestments, replaced by the cheap garments of a commoner, then buried in a public grave.
Shortly after the burial, however, Stephen ordered the body exhumed and thrown into the Tiber River, which it was.
No relics, no miracles
Despite his actions revealing he was a raving lunatic, Stephen had a comparatively salient reason for disposing of Formosus in the river. Sending the dead body of a political enemy down the Tiber was by no means a new or unique act.
The full history of Rome records multiple cases of political enemies meeting a similar fate as the final step in the ritual punishment of memoria damnata post mortem (“memory condemned after death”). In Formosus’ case, it was presumed Stephen did not want the possibility of any relics (bones) of Formosus’ body discovered and passed around for possible veneration. The same problem was to be encountered with the anti-pope Clement III in 1080 when believers started attributing posthumous miracles to him. Paschal II subsequently had his body exhumed and sent down the Tiber to stop that nonsense.
As a result of the trial, numerous priests, bishops, and deacons were thus ordained all over again, in violation of the Council of Trent, which explicitly stated that holy orders, along with baptism and confirmation, cannot be repeated. This act of sacrilege throws even more confusion on the legitimacy of Stephen VII’s papacy.
The fat lady has yet to sing on this story
This wasn’t the end of Formosus’ strange and gruesome journey.
It so happened a fisherman monk discovered the body in the Tiber, hauled it aboard, and carried it to a local church where a miracle — the very thing Stephen was trying to prevent — supposedly occurred. Labbe and Cossart, as well as Liudprand of Cremona, reported that “how great authority and how religious Pope Formosus was, we can gather from this, since, when he was afterwards found by fishermen and carried to the Church of the blessed Prince of the Apostles (church of St. Peter), certain images of the saints, with veneration, saluted him, placed in his coffin; for this I have very often heard from most religious men of the city of Rome.”
The Cadaver Synod was a final nail in Stephen VII’s ill-fated papacy. The morbid trial and the vicious mistreatment of the beloved Formosus’ corpse provoked so much outrage that within three months there was a court revolt. Stephen was deposed, stripped of his vestments, and dressed as a common monk. He was placed in prison and, sometime in August 897, he was strangled to death, presumably by a Formosus supporter.
After Stephen, Romanus (897) was elected Pope and he spent his three-month papacy disavowing and rescinding all the acts of his predecessor before he suddenly died. The next revolving door pope, Theodore II, whose papacy in November 897 lasted a grand total of 20 Days, formally convened a synod which annulled Stephen’s Cadaver Synod and fully restored Formosus’ papacy and reputation. Joseph S. Brusher wrote in his 1980 book “Popes Through the Ages” that under Theodore, Formosus’ corpse was “brought back to [St. Peter’s Basilica] in solemn procession. Once more clothed in the pontifical vestments, the body was placed before the Confession of St. Peter’s. There, in the presence of Pope Theodore II, a Mass was said for the soul of Formosus, and his poor battered body was restored to its own tomb.”
The next pope, John IX, whose pontificate lasted from 898 to 900, also nullified the Cadaver Synod and confirmed a prohibition of putting a dead person on trial.
And everyone thought that was the end of it.
But not quite
When the Spoleto-friendly Sergius III was elected Pope in 904, he convened yet another synod which overturned Theodore II and John IX’s nullifications of the Cadaver Synod, reaffirming Formosus’ conviction and sentence.
Sergius III forced even more priestly re-ordinations and resignations, going so far as to place an epitaph on the tomb of Stephen VII which praised that evil lunatic and scorned the ill-fated Formosus. According to “The Oxford Dictionary of Popes,” Sergius III was a “violent hater of Formosus” and had even been elected pope by an “anti-Formosan faction.”
Sergius III was in fact one of the clergy present at the notorious Cadaver Synod, serving as a co-judge for Stephen VII. Historians almost unanimously describe his pontificate as “dismal and disgraceful.”
Although the decrees of Sergius III were the last formal pronouncement by the Roman Catholic Church on the (un)lawfulness of the Cadaver Synod, today there is a nearly unanimous consensus among papal scholars that the synod was an aberration, and that Formosus stands today entirely vindicated.
Still, there has never been a Pope Formosus II. Cardinal Pietro Barbo considered the name in 1464 but was talked out of it. He instead became Pope Paul II.
Read — How there was a ghastly Trial once
Of a dead man by a live man, and both, Popes …
-Robert Browning, “The Ring and the Book” (1869)
There is a dispute among scholars whether this was Stephen VII or Stephen VI. In 752 AD, Stephen was elected Pope, but died three days later of a stroke, before his consecration and before he technically became Pope, according to early law which was changed centuries later. His predecessor took the name Stephen II, but is also recognized as Stephen.
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Kirsch, Johann Peter. “Pope Formosus.” The Catholic Encyclopedia Vol. 6, Robert Appleton Co., www.newadvent.org/cathen/06139b.htm.
Labbé Philippe, et al. Sacrosancta Concilia Ad Regiam Editionem Exacta. Coleti Et Albrizzi, 1733.
McBrien, Richard P. Lives of the Popes. Harper, 2006.
Moore, Michael Edward, et al. “The Attack on Pope Formosus: Papal History in an Age of Resentment (875–897).” Ecclesia et Violentia: Violence Against the Church and Violence Within the Church,” eds. Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2014.
Platina, B., and Anthony F. Delia. Lives of the Popes. Harvard University Press, 2008.
Sprenger, Kari-Michael. “The Tiara in the Tiber. An Essay on the Damnatio Inmemoria of Clement III (1084–1100) and Rome’s River as a Place of Oblivion and Memory.” Reti Medievali Rivista, vol. 13, no. 1, 2012, doi:10.6092/1593–2214/342.
Wilkes, Donald E. “The Cadaver Synod: Strangest Trial in History.” Popular Media, 2001, p. 42.
Wright, F. A. “The Works of Liudprand Of Cremona.” George Routledge and Sons, Ltd., 1930. Accessed at https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.168391/page/n6/mode/2up