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
Basilica of St. John Lateran, Rome, Italy
Lambert II — King of Italy, Duke of Spoleto, and Holy Roman Emperor — felt betrayed by Formosus — 111th Pope of the Catholic Church, Bishop of Rome, and Successor to the throne of Saint Peter.
Lambert, an Italian, had been crowned as King of Italy in 891 and co-ruler of the Holy Roman Empire (with his father Guido III) in 892 by a very reluctant and pro-Carolingian (pro-German) Pope Formosus. Almost immediately after Lambert’s coronation, Formosus invited Germany’s Arnulf of Carinthia to Rome to relieve Lambert of his imperial crown. Arnulf’s attempts to wrest the Holy Roman Empire from Lambert and his father failed in 893 and early 894. In the fall of 894, Guido III died and Lambert traveled to Rome with his mother, Ageltrude, to receive Pope Formosus’s confirmation of his sole succession to the imperial crown. When Formosus hesitated, he was imprisoned in Rome’s Castel Sant’Angelo by Lambert and Ageltrude. In February 896, Arnulf finally fought his way into Rome, freed Pope Formosus, and received Formosus’s papal confirmation as Holy Roman Emperor.
Shortly after receiving Formosus’s blessing, Arnulf fell ill while marching on Spoleto to defeat Lambert and Ageltrude once and for all. Due to Arnulf’s illness, the campaign against Lambert was canceled and Arnulf retreated home to Germany, weak in health and power. Lambert regained power in Italy quickly and at the beginning of 897, he arrived in Rome to exact vengeance on Pope Formosus. By using political pressure and military threats, Lambert called for an ecclesiastical trial of Pope Formosus inside the Basilica of St. John Lateran. Pope Formosus sat silently on his pontifical throne, dressed in his papal vestments and tiara, and was given a defense lawyer who never argued for his client. Formosus was charged with several violations of canon law and perjury and easily found guilty.
Rome was shocked by the spectacle of the trial of Formosus and with good reason. Throughout the trial, Formosus didn’t speak and he didn’t attempt to defend himself. In fact, it was impossible for Formosus to speak or defend himself at his trial — not because it wasn’t allowed, but because of one very simple reason: Pope Formosus had been dead for eight months.
On April 4, 896, just over a month after crowning Arnulf as Holy Roman Emperor in Rome, Pope Formosus fell ill and died, possibly after being poisoned. He was quickly replaced by Boniface VI, but Boniface served as Pope for only 15 days before he also died. Boniface was replaced in May 896 by Stephen VI — the candidate put forward and supported by the powerful Spoletan families aligned with Lambert II and Ageltrude. Though Stephen VI received his appointment as Bishop from Formosus, he owed his power and pontificate to the powerful families of Spoleto, namely Lambert and Ageltrude. When Lambert and his mother came to Rome in early 897, it did not take much pressure for Stephen VI to put his predecessor on trial. Lambert accused Formosus of betraying Italy by inviting a barbarian King (Arnulf) to steal the imperial crown that Lambert felt rightfully belonged to him. Pope Stephen VI therefore called for the decomposing body of Formosus to be exhumed from his tomb and dressed in his papal robes. The papal tiara was placed on his rotting head and the corpse of Pope Formosus was seated on a throne in the Basilica of St. John Lateran to face his accusers, led by the current Pope, Stephen VI.
The great German historian Ferdinand Gregorovius breaks down the “Council of the Cadaver” far better than I could ever attempt to do justice:
”Cardinals, bishops and many other ecclesiastical dignitaries gathered together in the Lateran basilica. The corpse of the pope was taken from the sepulchre in which it had rested for several months and, clothed in papal vestments, was placed on a throne in the Council Chamber. The lawyer of Pope Stephen stood up and, turning toward that horrendous mummy at whose side stood trembling a deacon who acted as the defender, notified to him the counts of the indictment. Then the living pope demanded from the dead one, in mad fury: ‘How could you in your insane ambition usurp the apostolic see, you who were already bishop of Portus?’ The attorney for Formosus mumbled something in his defense, as much as horror allowed him to say anything, then the cadaver was pronounced guilty and sentenced. The synod signed the act of deposition, damned the pope for eternity and decreed that all those upon whom he had conferred holy orders would have to be ordained again. The vestments were torn off the corpse, and the three fingers of the right hand, with which the Latins imparted benediction, were cut off. Then with savage shouts the corpse was dragged out of the chamber, through the streets of Rome, and finally dumped in the Tiber in the midst of the yelling of an immense throng.”
What followed the Cadaver Synod is a mixture of history and legend that is sometimes difficult to navigate 1100 years later. After his naked, mutilated corpse was dumped into the Tiber River, it washed ashore three days later and was collected by a monk who may have been the man who became Pope Theodore II for a short time at the end of 897. Immediately following the end of the Synod, a powerful earthquake rocked Rome and destroyed the Lateran Basilica where Stephen VI had put Formosus on trial. Many Romans took this as a divine signal that Pope Stephen VI had gone too far in desecrating the body of his predecessor and just a few months later, Stephen himself was imprisoned after a public uprising. By August 897, Pope Stephen was dead — strangled in captivity in Castel Sant’Angelo.
The battles and intrigues of medieval popes continued for centuries, but Pope Theodore II and Pope John IX both held councils by the beginning of the 10th century that nullified the findings of Stephen VI’s Cadaver Synod. However, Pope Sergius III, who served from 904-911, participated in the Cadaver Synod as a bishop and overturned the ruling of Theodore II and John IX, thereby confirming the findings of Stephen VI’s bizarre and macabre council. In fact, Sergius III went as far as contributing a complimentary epitaph to the tomb of Stephen VI and some historians claim that Sergius III had Formosus re-exhumed, retried, re-convicted, and beheaded — although that is not universally agreed upon. Sergius III, though, is not exactly high on the Vatican’s lists of “Greatest Popes” considering he ordered the murder of one Pope (Leo V) and illegitimately fathered another Pope (John XI).
Today, all of these Popes are recognized as legitimate successors to Saint Peter’s throne by the Vatican, but it’s clear that when people say that the Catholic Church has some present-day issues that things were once much, much worse.