Pope Stephen VI Dug Up His Predecessor’s Corpse and Put it on Trial

Pope Stephen VI Dug Up His Predecessor’s Corpse and Put it on Trial

Khalid Elhassan - October 27, 2018

Generally speaking, the papacy is a prestigious institution today, and popes are highly respected figures. During long stretches of the Dark Ages, however, popes were more like Rodney Dangerfield, in that they got no respect. Italy and Rome, particularly during the ninth and tenth centuries, were marked by feudal violence and anarchy, as the entire peninsula was torn apart by fiercely competing noble families. For the rival factions, the papacy was just another piece and prize in their Medieval Italian version of Game of Thrones. So they fought bitterly to seize the Holy See in order to put its spiritual, economic, and military resources to use in their quarrels.

Plenty of popes, then and later, knew how to hold a grudge, and there is no dearth of pontiffs who plotted and schemed against their predecessors, or even went so far as to outright murder them. Nor does history have a shortage of popes who were quite vindictive towards the very memory of their predecessors. However, no pope in the nearly two millennia long history of the pontificate ever came close to the levels of vindictiveness exhibited by pope Stephen VI. This Stephen was the only pope who was so vindictive that he had a predecessor’s corpse exhumed and put on trial, so he could finally tell him to his (dead) face just what he thought of him.

Pope Stephen VI Dug Up His Predecessor’s Corpse and Put it on Trial
An attack on Rome during the Dark Ages. Fall of Rome

The Medieval Papacy Was a Bit Like Game of Thrones

After the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century, Italy was fought over by the Ostrogothic Kingdom which ruled the peninsula, and the Byzantine Empire, which sought to reunify the former Roman Empire. The interminable wars between those rivals, fought on Italian soil, wreaked widespread havoc and devastation. Fighting did not peter out until the seventh century, when the Byzantines, weakened by the Muslim conquests, were forced to focus on survival at home instead of military adventurism abroad.

By then, Italy had been reduced from what had once been the central region of an urbanized, thriving, and sophisticated civilization, to a depopulated ruin. The vast infrastructure built during centuries of Roman rule was wrecked, as aqueducts, roads, bridges, and ports, had been either deliberately destroyed or allowed to fall into decay for lack of maintenance. Hitherto thriving estates lay in ruins, and agricultural productivity shrank as the rural population were reduced to small time peasants. Trade networks within Italy and across the Mediterranean, that had once allowed the urbanized culture of the Roman world to thrive, collapsed.

The collapse of the trade networks led to a collapse of the economy, which led to a population collapse in turn. Cities emptied, as their dwellers were either massacred by marauding armies, or had to feed themselves by becoming peasants and turning to subsistence farming in the surrounding countryside. Rome’s population had once reached as high as a million people, and the city still had a few hundred thousand people when the Western Empire fell. It was reduced to a small town of a few thousand souls, scavenging the decaying ruins for building materials. The Dark Ages had arrived in the Italian Peninsula, and it was against that background that the Cadaver Synod took place.

Pope Stephen VI Dug Up His Predecessor’s Corpse and Put it on Trial
Pope Stephen VI. Time Magazine

The Holy Father Stephen VI’s time on the papal throne was not that long, lasting for little more than a year between his election as pope in May of 896, until his death in August of 897. However, that was more than enough time to secure his place in the books, with one of the most controversial episodes in a papal history that has no shortage of controversy. It took place during a period, from roughly the middle of the ninth century to the middle of the tenth, that was marked by severe political instability in the Italian Peninsula.

In theory, the papacy spoke for and asserted authority over not only the Catholic Church, but over Christianity the world over. In reality, popes during this period were appointed and dethroned in rapid succession, based on the obscure machinations and intrigues of provincial Italian and Roman aristocratic families. Those rustics did not view the papacy and popes through our current global prism. Instead, to the factions in Rome and the surrounding region, the Holy See was simply another tool to be used in furthering their parochial ambitions, and in thwarting the ambitions of their rivals. Historical sources are relatively scarce as to the details of just what those rivalries revolved around, but the gist of them covered the basics: wealth, power, and prestige.

Pope Stephen VI Dug Up His Predecessor’s Corpse and Put it on Trial
Pope Formosus. Vintage News

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.

Pope Stephen VI Dug Up His Predecessor’s Corpse and Put it on Trial
Woodcut of Arnulf of Carinthia. iStock Photos

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.

Pope Stephen VI Dug Up His Predecessor’s Corpse and Put it on Trial
Basilica of Saint John Lateran, where the corpse of Pope Formosus was tried. Wikimedia

The Cadaver Synod

Pope Formosus was dead, but that would not stop the Spoletan Pope Stephen VI from giving him a piece of his mind. Stephen VI ordered the rotting corpse of Formosus exhumed, and had it hauled to the papal throne. There, in one of the papacy’s weirdest episodes, the remains were subjected to an ecclesiastical trial before the Roman clergy, that came to be known as the “Cadaver Synod”. With Formosus’ reeking corpse propped on the throne, Stephen VI conducted the prosecution, while a teenage deacon, hiding behind the dead pope, conducted the defense.

Stephen’s list of charges against Formosus was long, and included perjury; serving as bishop while actually a layman; transmigration of sees in violation of canon law; and of generally having been unworthy of the pontificate. The proceedings were just as ghoulishly farcical and macabre as one might imagine. The unhinged Stephen would scream the accusations against Formosus’ cadaver, then the deacon hiding behind the dead pope, imitating Formosus’ voice, would deny the charges.

To no one’s surprise, Formosus’s corpse, being a corpse, lost the case, and was found guilty. An ancient Roman penalty, damnatio memoriae, meaning “condemnation of the memory” and typically decreed by the Senate against those who brought dishonour upon the state, was applied. Stephen VI then had the papal vestments stripped from Formosus’ corpse, to be replaced with rags. Next, he ordered the amputation of three fingers from Formosus’ right hand, which he had used in consecrations. The he had the body dumped in a pauper’s grave.

Pope Stephen VI Dug Up His Predecessor’s Corpse and Put it on Trial
Passing of sentence against the corpse of Formosus. Alamy

However, even that failed to satisfy Stephen and sate his vindictiveness for long. Soon thereafter, still raging at the insult to the Spoleto family, he again had Formosus’ corpse dug up, then ordered it loaded down with stones, and tossed into the Tiber river. The man was clearly insane, and his bizarre behavior led to widespread rioting that finally ended with his ouster. The rioters got a hold of Stephen VI, and he was stripped of his papal vestments, imprisoned, and strangled to death in his cell.

Pope Stephen VI and the Cadaver Synod might have been the era’s weirdest pope and papal episode, but neither would prove to be the worst in a period that is often described as the nadir of the papacy. In the following few decades, before serious reform efforts were finally made, the woeful list of Stephen VI’s successors would include Pope Sergius III, who murdered two predecessors, and fathered an illegitimate child (who would go on to become pope). Another pope, John XII, became a serial rapist and murderer, and transformed the papal palace into a de facto brothel. Yet another, Benedict IX, sold the papacy in order to fund his retirement.


Where did we find this stuff? Some sources and further reading

Atlas Obscura – The Cadaver Synod: When a Pope’s Corpse Was Put on Trial

Llewellyn, Peter – Rome in the Dark Ages (1970)

Medievalists – The Cadaver Synod: Low Point in the History of the Papacy

Ripley’s Believe it or Not – Cadaver Synod: The Trial of Pope Formosus’ Corpse

Vintage News – The Pope Who Exhumed the Body of His Predecessor, Dressed It, and Put it On Trial

Wikipedia – Cadaver Synod