Cadaver Synod: The Exhumed Corpse of Pope Formosus That Was Put on Trial

Cadaver Synod: The Exhumed Corpse of Pope Formosus That Was Put on Trial

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The 9 th and 10 th centuries AD were turbulent years for the papacy of Rome. Caught up in the political machinations of Europe, the Vatican saw a rapid succession of popes come and go. The situation reached the peak of absurdity with the posthumous ecclesiastical trial of Pope Formosus in January 897, an event commonly referred to as the Cadaver Synod or the Cadaver Trial. Nine months after Formosus died, his body was exhumed and made to sit on a throne so that he could face the charges levied against him by the then Pope Stephen VI. Dressed in all the fineries of papal vestments, Formosus faced accusations of perjury, coveting the papacy as a layman, and violating church canons while he was pope. Defended by a mere deacon and obviously incapable of defending himself, the dead Pope was found guilty on all counts.

Formosus was born around 816 AD in the papal state of Ostia. Given the deplorable record keeping of those days, little is known about his life before becoming a Cardinal Bishop in 864. For the next decade or so, he worked as a missionary in Bulgaria and France. In 872, he was considered for the papacy but did not obtain the position. He was then asked by the Bulgarians to be the Archbishop of Bulgaria but he was denied this post by Pope Nicholas I. Sick of the all the politics of Rome, Formosus decided to leave the city for good. Before he left, he convinced Pope John VIII to have the King of the Franks, Charles the Bald, crowned the Holy Roman Emperor. (Charles II, as he became, ruled for two years in an ill-fated venture against the Saracens).

Charles the Bald, Holy Roman Emperor

Charles the Bald, Holy Roman Emperor ( public domain )

Fearful of a potential rival for the papal throne, John VIII accused Formosus of corrupting the Bulgarians and undermining the authority of the Holy See because the Bulgarians did not want any Bishop except Formosus. In 876, Formosus was excommunicated from the Church. However, when John VIII was killed in 882 (first the assassin poisoned him and then, impatient at the slow working poison, the assassin bashed his head in with a hammer), Formosus was pardoned of all crimes. Then there was Pope Marinus I, Pope Adrian III, and Pope Stephen V. In 891, Formosus was elected Pope, a position he held until his death in 896 of a stroke (officially ‘struck by paralysis’ which could also mean a possibly poisoning). While in office, Formosus made a lot of enemies in the upper echelons of power in Constantinople, the Holy Roman Empire, Italy, and within the Church itself. He also was persistently bothered by the relentlessly encroaching Saracens.

The list of popes buried in Saint Peter's Basilica includes the recovered body of Pope Formosus

The list of popes buried in Saint Peter's Basilica includes the recovered body of Pope Formosus ( CC by SA 3.0 )

Yet for all this, Fromosus was loved by the people. When he died, there were riots in the streets of Rome. To stem the unrest, the Church quickly instated Boniface VI as pope. Pope Boniface VI lasted for two weeks before he died (either of gout or poison) and his reign was declared ‘null and void’. He was succeeded by Stephen VI.

The charges brought against Formosus during the Cadaver Synod echo those levied against him by Pope John VIII but were really based on the political demands of a fractious continent. The reason so many popes came and went (and why so many of them were assassinated) was because secular kingdoms and fiefdoms would support a candidate for the papacy in order to reap the benefits of a preferred papal allegiance. During his reign, Formosus had supported Arnulf of Carinthia in a bid for the imperial crown of the Holy Roman Empire. Pope Stephen VI supported Arnulf’s rival Lambert of Spoleto (Spoleto was one of the most powerful families in Rome at that time). Formosus was in the act of raising an army against the House of Spoleto when he died in 896. Arnulf also died in 896 at which time Lambert (who was 16 at the time and was most likely a mere pawn for his overly ambitious parents) came to Rome to receive the imperial crown from the newly ordained Pope Stephen VI.

This is the main source of the Cadaver Synod, however, other factors were at work. First, Stephen VI, who personally presided over the trial, may have been insane (officially, ‘induced by an evil passion’). Additionally, Lambert of Spoleto and his influential mother, the Lombard Princess Agiltrude, still bitterly hated Formosus and may have pressured Stephen VI to humiliate the former pope.


This is on of the most ridiculous and childish events in the history of the church – althoug a factual one. It seems that not only Steven had problems with Formosus, but his successor. It seems Formosus was disinterred and reinterred several times before they finally settled on him being buried in the popes robes – The reason being that the numerous ordinations under Formosus had already gone on to become bishops. How indeed would they ‘un-ordain’ all those blessed under him?

Inerestingly, there has never been a Formosus II. I wonder why.

This time period was very turbulent for Popes as there were Popes and Anti-Popes. Some Popes were later  declared  invalid.


Formosus was not the only Pope to be tried for heresy posthumously. who died in 1303 was also tried posthumously. The trial of Pope Boniface III is told in Book 2 of John Gower's Confessio Amantis. Pope Clement V (not his successor) gave permission for the trial under pressure from King Philip IV, who had a feud with Boniface III. He was tried for immortality (one of the charges was sodomy or which no evidence was produced). The trial ended when several knights who maintain his innocence threw down their gauntlets declaring trial by combat. When no one accepted the challenge, and the Council declared the matter closed.

Also Wycliffe was declared a heretic 20 years after his death. His  corpse was exhumed and burned and the ashes cast into the River Swift.What was his crime, translating the Bible into English.

As for no other Popes named Formosus, I believe Popes choose their names from previous Popes they admired and some consider Formosus’s reign invalid.  Some believe that Formosus  hijacked thr Popedome when his predecessor Pope Celestine V resigned.

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