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Exploring the Darker Side of Everything

Cadaver Synod – When a dead Pope was Placed on Trial

Some events throughout history have stretched credibility way beyond normal boundaries. Acts that seem so absurd, so filled with lunacy that they couldn’t possibly be true – and our story today is about as strange as they come. 

In January 897 AD, a trial began in the Basilica San Giovanni Laterano in Rome where Pope Stephen VI accused one of his predecessors, Pope Formosus, of perjury and of having gained the papacy through illegal and underhand methods. Now, this situation was strange enough – having two Popes on either side of the courtroom had never been done before and has certainly hasn’t happened since. 

But the fact that two Popes were present was merely a sideshow to the quite unbelievable events that were unfolding. As Pope Stephen VI, delivered a passionate, blistering attack on Pope Formosus, demanding to know why he had “usurped the universal Roman See in such a spirit of ambition”, he did so not to a living being – but a rotting corpse. 

This is the bizarre story of the Pope whose body was exhumed nine months after his death to stand trial in what must surely be one of the most macabre legal events in human history. But it is the culmination of a sordid Dark Ages tale filled with plenty of Popes, political and religious power struggles and plenty of murder.  

Chaos in the Vatican  

Over the last 43 years, just three Popes have led the Catholic Church from within the depths of the Vatican. The Papal Conclaves, the process where the College of Cardinals gathers to elect a new pope, has become a hugely symbolic and often gripping moment. The smoke that pours from the Sistine Chapel chimney, black for a failed decision and white to signify that a new Pope has been elected, now carries an almost cinematic tension to it. 

But just over a thousand years ago, things were very different. It was a time of extreme instability within Italy, that permeated the walls of the Vatican. Between 872 and 965 AD, there were no fewer than 12 different Popes, while in the nine years between 896 and 904 AD, a new Pope was elected each year. Was this simply because Popes were dying of natural causes at unprecedented rates? Of course not, this was a time where powerful Roman factions held sway and the short Papal reigns had more to do with political manoeuvres than anything else.  

The Dark Ages – or Early Medieval Age to use its other, less mysterious and far less exciting name – was a period that ran roughly from the fall of the Roman Empire, around 400 AD, to the start of the Renaissance in 1400 AD. It was a time when Europe experienced a profound economic, intellectual and cultural decline after the grandeur and technological heyday of the Roman Empire. 

The unity that the Roman dominion had created quickly vanished and despite large swaths of Western Europe, including Rome, being united under Emperor Charlemagne, this eventually unravelled and the Holy City was sacked by the Saracens in 846 AD.

And so began the most chaotic and corrupt period of the Papacy remembered as Saeculum Obscurum (dark century) – but also by the more vividly descriptive Papal Pornocracy. If there are any doubts over the meaning of that, it was a suggestion that the Vatican was run by little more than corrupt immorality. 

Formosus

The man who would take centre stage during one of the strangest events in Vatican history – despite being more rotten flesh than a living breathing defendant at the time – was Pope Formosus. 

We believe he was born in Rome around 816 AD and that’s about it for his early life until he was appointed Bishop of Porto by Pope Nicholas I in 864 AD. Two years later, he was given the task of aiding the conversion of Bulgaria as the Papal Legate – the personal representative of the Pope. 

Pope Nicholas I was replaced by Pope Adrian II who in turn was succeeded by Pope John VIII. The new Pope was faced with a catalogue of issues, ranging from the growing strength of the Saracens to the south, brewing trouble with the Franks and the Byzantines and the complex political quagmire that had become the Papal State.  

It’s here where things get a little murky and you’ll have to forgive the slight gaps, but we are talking about a period over a thousand years ago, which has long been remembered in a rather damning light and suppressed whenever possible. 

Basically, Pope John VIII and Formosus had a spectacular falling out. Some claim that it was purely a power struggle and that the sitting Pope feared the rise of the younger man. Others say it ran a whole lot deeper and that both sides were entwined in the kind of insidious political tangles that had engulfed the era. Another suggestion was that Formosus had tried to take the title of archbishop of Bulgaria, an act that would have meant he then carried two titles, which was specifically banned by the Vatican.    

Whatever the exact reason, Formosus was officially excommunicated sometime around 872 AD, though this was lifted in 878 AD on the condition that he never set foot in Rome again nor do anything remotely priest-like for the rest of his life. 

The Assasination of Pope John VIII  

If Pope John VIII had had doubts regarding the integrity of those around him, that distrust was confirmed most horrifyingly on 16th December 882 AD.

Exact details are lacking here, but Pope John VIII was assassinated by his own clerics and possibly even by one of his own relatives. The assailant was said to have first used poison but after growing frustrated by the slow effects of the venom, he took a hammer he was carrying – presumably for the DIY work that he was on his way to do after – and smashed the Pope’s head in. And that was the quite definitive end of Pope John VIII.

This was by no means the first assassination of a Pope and it’s thought that between 30 and 40 of God’s head representatives have met a grisly end at the hands of man. But this one was notable, not only for the savagery in which it was carried out but for what it sparked. It was now a very dangerous time to be a Pope. 

The Return of Formosus 

The murder of Pope John VIII may have sent shocks throughout the Catholic world, but for one man, in particular, it made life significantly easier. When Marinus I became the new Pope in 882 AD, all of Formosus’ past ills, whether true or not we’ll never know, were forgotten and he was once again elected as bishop of Porto. 

Pope Marinus I lasted just short of a year and a half before dying of natural causes and was replaced by Adrian III who reigned for little more than a year and died while on a trip to Germany to discuss the rising threat of the Saracens with the Emperor Charles the Fat of the Carolingian Empire – whose nickname apparently appeared long after his death and there are no indications that he was a little too portly. 

The new Pope was Stephen V, who managed to reign for a lengthy 6 years and had to contend with a financially lean church, famine, drought, locusts and massive political and social instability. By all accounts, Pope Stephen V was a fairly decent man who even used his private wealth to fix churches and redeem Christians held captive by the Saracens. And while we’re talking about the dreaded power to the South, in 887, Pope Stephen V wrote that Christian slaves mutilated by the Saracens could still become priests and that he would forgive those who needed to murder in order to escape. Which many would have probably taken as a given, but it was nice of him to say.  

Pope Stephen V died on 4th September 891 and once again, the Catholic Church had to begin the process of choosing a new Pope. Now, at this point, Formosus had been a fully rehabilitated member of the faith for some time and his name had cropped up repeatedly regarding potential Papacy merits. Perhaps his name had been passed over recently because of his history, but the time had now come. On 6th October 891, an announcement was made that a new Pope had been chosen. And his name was Formosus. 

Pope Formosus             

The new Pope quickly found himself embroiled in a series of contentious debates that would go on to reframe much of Europe. The first was regarding the role of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, the head of the Eastern Orthodox Church, which had recently seen Photius I being acrimoniously replaced by Stephen I. While Pope Formosus didn’t intervene in the position itself, it was the question of whether those who had been ordained by Photius I should remain, even though the previous Pope had voided all of Photius’ ordinations before his expulsion. 

The second power battle that the new Pope found himself mediating was over the French throne. Should it be Odo of Paris or Charles the Simple who should lead Francia? They just don’t do names like they used to in the Medieval Period, do they? 

Pope Formosus sided with Charles the Simple – who was also sometimes known as Charles the Straightforward if there were any doubts over the complexities of his psyche – and after a three-year struggle, the new man was crowned king. 

Battle for the Roman Crown

But Formosus’ biggest and perhaps most decisive political intervention came much closer to home. When he assumed the Papacy, the Holy Roman Empire was led by Guy III of Spoleto who Formosus was said to harbour deep distrust towards. As was often the case back then, when royal bloodlines meant you were theoretically the next in line, but couldn’t be guaranteed, the ageing Guy III, decided to rule jointly with his young son, Lambert, in his final years to try and smooth the succession process. 

On 30th April 892 AD, a deeply reluctant Pope Formosus crowned the new young king and for the time being, at least, Guy III had strengthened his position. But this new pope had another trick up his sleeve, a Carolingian king-size trick to be exact. 

In 893 AD, Pope Formosus sent an emissary north to East Francia aiming to persuade the King to march his army south, defeat the Roman army under Guy III and assume the title of Emperor in the Holy City. It was an enormous, yet hugely enticing proposition that the ambitious King Arnulf couldn’t resist. The man had managed to depose his uncle from the throne six years earlier, so that gives you a good idea about the kind of person we’re talking about. 

But he wouldn’t personally muddy his hands – at least for the time being – and initially sent his son, Zwentibold, along with a Bavarian army to take care of business. What exactly happened is a little confusing, because while the Prince and his army seemed to have defeated the Roman army they faced, they eventually withdrew north along with rumours that they had been paid off to retreat.

The following year, King Arnulf himself saddled up and led an army south, where they again defeated the Roman army and where he was crowned King of Italy in Milan. Again, things do get a little vague here. We can presume that Rome was the final destination, where Pope Formosus had promised him the title of Holy Roman Emperor, but this didn’t happen. 

Two events occurred that seemed to have stalled the entire process. Firstly, Guy III died suddenly, which you would have thought would speed things up but actually just complicated things further. Around the same time, fever decimated the Bavarian army and it was forced to limp home, even needing to fend off an attack from another would-be ruler along the way – it was that sort of age.  

Seeing their chance, Lambert, who was still only 14 at the time, and his mother Agiltrude arrived in Rome to receive Papal confirmation of his imperial title. Fat chance said Pope Formosus, who was then imprisoned in the Castel Sant’Angelo as a result. 

I hope you’re keeping up and we are nearly done with this dizzyingly confusing period of intrigue, backstabbing and just plain treachery. On receiving news that the Pope had been imprisoned, King Arnulf once again marched south, overcoming early obstacles after crossing the Alps and slowly gaining the support of the nobility as he continued towards Rome. 

At the gates of Rome, he found the city locked tightly. Queen Agiltrude had ordered a staunch defence, but it didn’t take long for the defenders to be overwhelmed and Bavarian soldiers were soon streaming through the streets of Rome and where they quickly freed Pope Formosus from the Castel Sant’Angelo. 

On 22nd February 896, King Arnulf was crowned as Emperor in the church of St. Peter as Pope Formosus bestowed on him the title of Augustus. Once the crown had comfortably settled up his head, his sights turned to the small city of Spoleto just north of Rome, where the young Lambert and his mother were holed up. As the large army approached, you would have put your money on the young man and his dear mother meeting a rather sticky end, but there was a final twist. 

On route and close to Spoleto, Emperor Arnulf suffered a stroke that left him virtually incapacitated. Unable to direct his army, Arnulf ordered his troops to turn north and return to Bavaria. The young boy and his mother had miraculously survived. At the time there were rumours that Emperor Arnulf had been poisoned by Queen Agiltrude, though it’s impossible to clarify this. And in a dramatic swing of fortunes, Arnulf died three years later in 899, his empire already a tattered mess.

But that wasn’t the only bit of good news for the young pretender. On 4th April 896 AD, less than two months on from Arnulf’s coronation, Pope Formosus also died. However, as you already know, that’s not the last we’ll see of Formosus. 

Raising the Dead 

The new Pope elected was Boniface VI but managed to last a mere 15 days before dying suspiciously of gout, though once again rumours abounded that the new Pope had been poisoned because he didn’t see eye to eye with the various factions now vying for the throne. 

And so, we come to the final Pope of our story, Stephen VI who was appointed thanks to hefty support from some of Rome’s most powerful families, including the Dukes of Spoleto – remember the same area that Prince Lambert and Queen Agiltrude had sought refuge in.

There are a few theories behind what happened next. The placing of a dead Pope on trial, rotting flesh and all had not only never been done before, but it was also an act that would eventually lead to the downfall of Stephen VI and his eventual murder. Some argue that by delegitimizing the still popular Formosus, Lambert could be eased back onto the throne. There was a powerful faction that had absolutely loathed Formosus and this could be seen as the last, most bizarre form of revenge you are ever likely to see. Others believe it was simply to destroy a growing sense of martyrdom that Formosus had developed since his death. Alternatively, Pope Stephen VI may well have just been bat-shit crazy. 

Perhaps one of the strangest events in the Catholic Church’s long history began in January 897 AD when Stephen VI ordered the remains of Formosus to be exhumed and called a Cadaver Synod – synod meaning a church assembly, while Cadaver means dead body, but often one that is about to be dissected – which is pretty accurate for what came next. 

Formosus’ decomposing corpse was dressed up in the finest regalia and placed upon a throne in the Papal court in the Basilica San Giovanni Laterano in Rome. Stephen VI even acted as chief prosecutor and was said to scream questions in the direction of the dead man. Perhaps knowing that this might be a little one-sided, he had appointed a deacon to answer on Formosus’ behalf – which just makes the entire scene that much weirder. The few records that still exist of the Cadaver Synod recalls one particular question being asked.  

“When you were bishop of Porto, why did you usurp the universal Roman See in such a spirit of ambition?”        

I can just imagine a tumbleweed rolling slowly past at this point before the deacon, no doubt heavily biased, came up with the response that Stephen VI wanted to hear. Unfortunately, we know almost nothing of what actually went on during this macabre scene because most records were destroyed a few years later, perhaps to expunge the ridiculousness of it all. In another bizarre incident, which may or may not be true but has been repeated many times since it was during the court proceedings that a small earthquake shook the area and rattled the windows of the court. If you thought that Pope Stephen VI might have taken this as an act of God, he certainly did not and instead launched into his next screaming tirade.  

But we are sure about the outcome. Formosus was found guilty on all charges and had the vestments ripped from his body, while the three fingers used for blessing were also torn off. His body was dumped unceremoniously in an unnamed plot just outside the city, but in a final act of vengeance, Stephen VI ordered it dug up shortly after and tossed into the River Tiber.   

The Final Twist  

Public outrage over the Cadaver Synod had been growing for some time with the hatred directed at Stephen VI. Things bubbled over in the summer of 897 AD when the Pope was imprisoned and died shortly after when an unknown assailant entered his cell and strangled him.

If the horror of the Cadaver Synod had been quelled with Stephen’s murder, the question of Formosus still hung in the air. Two Popes later, John IX oversaw the recovery of Formosus’ body – whether it was the real thing or not after a year or so in the river we don’t know – then formally annulled the Cadaver Synod before the well-travelled and presumably horribly rotten body of Formosus was finally laid to rest in St Peter’s Cathedral. 

One of the strangest events you are ever likely to hear about had finally come full circle. The role of the Pope has changed a lot in the 1000 year plus time since the Cadaver Synod, which was probably needed because it was a time of murderous insanity. When revenge need not stop at death. 

Cadaver Synod – Wikipedia

Formosus | Biography, Papacy, & Cadaver Synod | Britannica          

The Cadaver Synod: When a Pope’s Corpse Was Put on Trial – Atlas Obscura

The Cadaver Synod: Low Point in the History of the Papacy – Medievalists.net

Inside the Cadaver Synod, the trial of a dead pope’s body (nationalgeographic.com)

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