Cadaver Synod: The Exhumed Corpse of Pope Formosus That Was Put on Trial
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 (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 (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.
Pope Stephen VI. This illustration is from ‘The Lives and Times of the Popes’ by Chevalier Artaud de Montor, New York: The Catholic Publication Society of America, 1911. It was originally published in 1842. Before Pope-elect Stephen was removed from most lists of popes, Stephen VI was referred to as Stephen VII (public domain)
No record from the trial exists. However, we know that Pope Stephen VI had Formosus’ body dug up and brought to stand against charges of heresy and other offenses to the church. Formosus was represented by a deacon who crouched in fear behind Formosus’ throne. “The deacon assigned to speak for him hunkered down on his hands and knees behind the throne to answer on Formosus’ behalf. When clearly leading questions were asked, such as ‘Why did you usurp the papacy?’ Formosus’ counsel really let down his client by confessing: ‘Because I was evil!’” (Stockton, 2015).
The corpse of Pope Formosus on trial. (public domain)
Formosus was found guilty. He was literally stripped of his robes and deprived his title as pope. Then they cut off the three fingers he used to bless people and reburied the naked corpse in a commoner’s grave.
This was all too much for the people, already sick of the intrigues of the Church. They demanded Stephen VI to be removed and a proper pope be instated. Stephen VI was thrown in jail and later strangled in August 897. Lambert of Spoleto died in 898 either by assassination or by falling off a horse. Princess Agiltrude (also spelled Ageltrude) took over the management the significant holdings of the House of Spoleto and ran them very well until her death (of natural causes) in August 923.
Top image: Jean-Paul Laurens, Le Pape Formose et Étienne VII ("Pope Formosus and Stephen VII"), 1870. (public domain)
Betham, Matilda. A Biographical Dictionary of the Celebrated Women of Every Age and Country. London: B. Crosby, 1804. Print.
The Editors of the Encyclopedia Britannica. "Lambert Of Spoleto." Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica, 20 July 1998. Web. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Lambert-of-Spoleto.
Harper, Elizabeth. "The Cadaver Synod: When a Pope's Corpse Was Put on Trial." Atlas Obscura. Atlas Obscura, 03 Mar. 2014. Web. http://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/morbid-monday-cadaver-synod.
Stockton, Richard. "Better Know A Pope: Stephen VI, The Grave Robber." All That Is Interesting. All That Is Interesting, 05 Jan. 2015. Web. http://all-that-is-interesting.com/stephen-vi-pope.