The Deceased Pope who was Exhumed, Dressed in Papal Vestments and Put on Trial.
By the 9th Century AD, the Western Roman Empire had been destroyed and Italy, under the rule of Charlemagne, had been carved up into Papal States. The Kingdom of Italy as it was known was plunged into centuries of war and disharmony with each of these states vying for power and superiority.
Arguably the most powerful and the most dangerous office one could seek during this epoch was the Papacy. It was in this period that the Pope alone had the power to crown rulers and so those seeking to rule became very interested in who was wearing the Mitre.
Known to religious scholars as the ‘Nadir of the Papacy’ this period is infamous for its stories of corruption and murder as the rich and powerful of the Papal States fought to place their chosen clergymen on the top throne.
Formosus was a 9th century bishop and missionary who vaunted as the bishop who brought Catholicism to Bulgaria. He was accused of aspiring to the bishop-hood of two places and of wanting the papacy for himself.
The charges were laid against him by then Pope John VIII who promptly had him excommunicated. Pope John VIII was not to last long himself – he was the first Pope to be executed by his own people.
Once Pope John VIII was out of the picture, the Papacy became somewhat of a carousel with three Popes and three deaths happening in quick succession. Somewhere amid all this murder Formosus got his old job back and was elected Pope in 891.
By most accounts, Formosus was just as power-hungry as the rest. The Medievalists report that Formosus was enemies with Guy III of Spoleto, the Holy Roman Emperor at that time, and conspired to overthrow his lineage and put Arnulf of Carinthia in his place, which he did on February 22, 896.
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Formosus’ victory was very short lived as he passed away in the April of 896 and his replacement, Boniface VI, died 15 days after receiving the Papacy. Unfortunately for Formosus, the next in line was Stephen VI — his long time enemy and supporter of the Spoleto’s.
Stephen VI’s reasons for what happened next are clearly political when viewed through the lens of history. At the time Stephen VI accused Formosus of perjury, breaking canon law, coveting the papacy and illegally serving as bishop. His hatred for Formosus was so strong that he ordered his body exhumed and put on trial.
The farce that followed is known as the Cadaver Synod and is one of the more bizarre episodes in papal history. The corpse of Formosus was dressed in papal vestments and taken to court where he was interrogated by Stephen VI. Speaking in defense of Formosus was a deacon who, understanding his place in the proceedings, said very little.
It may come as no surprise that Formosus was found guilty on all counts; he was deemed unworthy to have been pope and his corpse was stripped of the papal vestments, his consecration fingers were chopped off and his body dropped in the Tiber where it was rescued by his supporters and secretly buried. By the end of the ordeal, Stephen had fallen out of good graces and was imprisoned then strangled in his cell.
Over the next two years, with the blessing of a new Holy Roman Emperor and three successions of popes, Formosus was cleared of all charges and his body was eventually given a pope’s burial and interred in St. Peter’s Cathedral.