Stephen’s Beef With Formosus
Formosus, the defendant in the Cadaver Synod, was born in Rome in 816. He rose within the Catholic Church’s hierarchy to Cardinal Bishop of Porto, Rome’s port city and main harbor, in 864. Two years later, Pope Nicholas I appointed him papal legate and missionary to the pagan Bulgar tribes. He was so successful at it, that the converted Bulgarians clamored to have him appointed as their bishop. However, technicalities in the Catholic Church’s laws forbade that. In years to come, Formosus’s enemies used that success in converting the Bulgars, and his popularity with them, against him. They asserted that he had corrupted the minds of the Bulgarians “so that as long as he was alive, they would not accept any other bishop from the apostolic see“.
Formosus was also accused of conspiring with others to usurp the authority of Pope John VIII, and of plundering church property. Between those charges and the Bulgar related allegations, he was excommunicated. He was restored to the Church’s good graces after John VIII’s death in 882, and resumed his bishopric of Porto, which he held until he was elected pope in 891.
His prosecutor, or persecutor, Pope Stephen VI was born into the ruling family of Spoleto, an independent duchy in central Italy. In 891, an earlier Pope Stephen V had reluctantly crowned Guy III, Duke of Spoleto, as Holy Roman Emperor. However, his preference had actually been for the East Frankish king Arnulf of Carinthia. When Formosus became pope, he was lukewarm at best towards the Spoletan emperor Guy, and like Stephen V before him, he also preferred Arnulf.
In 892, Guy and the Spoletans forced Pope Formosus, against his will, to crown Guy’s underage son Lambert as co-emperor. While at it, the Spoletans also forced him to make their relative, Stephen, the future pope and persecutor of Formosus’s corpse, a bishop. Resenting the Spoletans’ ham handedness, Formosus persuaded Arnulf to invade Italy and liberate it from the Spoletans.
Arnulf complied, and in 894, he invaded and occupied northern Italy. Guy died later that year, leaving his son Lambert in the care of his mother. Mother and child proved no match for Arnulf, who defeated their forces, and seized Rome in 895. Formosus promptly ditched the Spoletans, and crowned Arnulf Holy Roman Emperor in Saint Peter’s basilica. The new emperor then set out to mop up the Spoletans, only to suffer a stroke, which paralyzed him and forced him to end the campaign. Formosus himself died a few months later, in 896. He was succeeded by Boniface VI, who lasted only 15 days as Holy Father, before dying of gout. He was followed by the Spoletan Stephen VI, who was hopping mad at Formosus for what he perceived as an unforgivable offense against, and betrayal of, his family.