In 897 AD a Dead Pope Was Dug Up and His Rotting Corpse Put on Trial
The ‘Cadaver Trial’ of the dead Pope Formosus would have to be one of the most absurd events in Rome’s history. Nine months after the Pope died, his body was exhumed and his rotting corpse was placed on a throne to face charges. Clearly incapable of defending himself, the dead Pope was found guilty on all counts.
In 891 AD, Formosus was elected Pope, a position he held until his death in 896 of a stroke (although some suspect 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 encroaching Muslims .
Yet for all this, Formosus 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.
Copper engraving print of Pope Formosus, 1580. (Giovanni Battista de'Cavalieri / Public Domain )
Pope Stephen VI had a seething hatred for the late Pope Formosus. The 9th and 10th centuries AD were turbulent years for the papacy of Rome. Caught up in the political machinations of Europe, the Vatican had seen a rapid succession of popes come and go. 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. Formosus was in the act of raising an army against Spoleto when he died. Arnulf also died in 896 at which time Spoleto came to Rome to receive the imperial crown from the newly ordained Pope Stephen VI.
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 (‘Cadaver Trial’). Pope Stephen VI ordered Formosus’ body to be exhumed. He was dressed in all the fineries of papal vestments and placed on trial where he faced Stephen VI’s accusations of perjury, coveting the papacy as a layman, and violating church canons while he was pope.
Being a rotting corpse at the time, Formosus wasn’t too good at defending himself! He was found guilty, stripped of his robes and deprived of his title as pope. The three fingers he used to bless people were cut off and his naked corpse was tossed into a commoner’s grave.
Already sick of the intrigues of the Church, the public demanded Stephen VI be removed and a proper pope be instated. Stephen VI was thrown in jail and later strangled in August 897.
Top image: Jean-Paul Laurens, Le Pape Formose et Étienne VII ("Pope Formosus and Stephen VII"), 1870. Source: Public domain
By Kerry Sullivan