The Defendant at One of the Most Famous Trials in History Wasn’t Even Alive to See It

The Defendant at One of the Most Famous Trials in History Wasn’t Even Alive to See It

Stephanie Schoppert - December 11, 2016

In 864 Formosus was made bishop of Portus. He did missionary work for the Bulgarians who then asked that he be made their bishop. This was forbidden by the Second Council of Nicaea and so Pope Nicholas I denied the request. In 875, he convinced Charles the Bald, who was King of the Franks to be crowned emperor. He may have been a potential candidate for Pope about this time but political complications led to him flee Rome and the court of the Pope John VIII. Pope John VIII then convened a synod and demanded that Formosus return. If he did not he would be excommunicated on a range of charges including aspiring to the Bulgarian Archbishopric and the Holy See, opposing the Emperor and deserting his diocese. In 878, it was decided that Formosus would not be excommunicated as long as he swore never to return to Rome or perform any priestly duties.

The 9th and 10th centuries were a period of rapid Papal successions and with the papacy of Marinus I in 883, Formusus was restored to his position at Portus. Then after the reigns of Pope Hadrian III and Pope Stephen V, Formosus was elected Pope on October 6th, 891. The vote was unanimous.

In 892, he crowned Lambert of Spoleto co-emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, just as Guy III of Spoleto had been crowned by John VIII. But in 893, Formosus was concerned about the aggression that Guy III was showing and worried about the fate of Rome. So he asked the Carolingian Arnulf of Carinthia to invade Italy in order to take the imperial crown. Arnulf agreed and invaded, but it failed. Then Guy III died soon after and in 895 Formosus once against asked Arnulf to take the Imperial crown. This time he succeeded and Formosus crowned him Holy Roman Emperor.

In 896 both Arnulf and Formosus died. Pope Boniface VI took over but died two weeks later. Then the papacy was passed on to Stephen (VI) VII. In January of 897, Lambert, his mother and Guy IV entered Rome and it is believed that what happened next was a form of revenge against Formosus on the part of Guy IV. Around that same time, Stephen (VI) VII ordered that the body of Pope Formosus be removed from his tomb and brought to the papal court for judgement. What happened next is now known as the Cadaver Synod and the story only gets stranger from here.

The Defendant at One of the Most Famous Trials in History Wasn’t Even Alive to See It
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The corpse of Pope Formosus was propped up on a throne and then a deacon was called upon to answer questions on behalf of the deceased Pope. The charges that were brought up against Pope Formosus were many of the same charges that were brought against him by Pope John VIII. Pope Stephen also accused Formosus of perjury and performing the duties of a bishop while actually being a layman. The trial was as much of a sham as one would expect when the defendant is a dead body and the body of Pope Formosus was found guilty on all charges.

As punishment, the election of Pope Formosus and any acts he performed as Pope or Bishop were declared to be invalid. In a strange twist this also included the ordination of Pope Stephen (VI) VII as bishop of Anagni. The corpse was also removed of all vestments and the three fingers of the right hand that Pope Formosus had used for blessings were removed. The body was then cast into a grave. However, it was decided that the corpse had not been punished enough, so it was dug up again. This time weights were attached to the feet and the body was thrown in to the Tiber River. The weights were not successful and the body did eventually wash up on the banks of the river. When it did, there were numerous reports of the body performing miracles.

The Cadaver Synod divided Rome and turned many people against Pope Stephen (VI) VII. The people rose up against the Pope and had him deposed and imprisoned. It was sometime in July or August of 897 that Pope Stephen (VI) VII was strangled while he was being held in prison.

In December of 897, Pope Theodore II (Stephen’s successor) convened a synod that annulled the ruling of the Cadaver Synod. He had Formosus’ body reburied in his pontifical vestments in Saint Peter’s Basilica. In 898, Pope John IX held two synods that also annulled the findings of the Cadaver Synod and he even prohibited any future trials of dead people.

For many this should have been the end of it but in 904 Pope Sergius III overturned the synods of Theodore II and John IX and reaffirmed the findings of the Cadaver Synod. He did not punish the body but he did have a laudatory epitaph carved into the tomb of Pope Stephen (VI) VII.

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