A Dead Man & His Mouthpiece
Denigrating the Deceased
Let the town-hangman chop from his right hand
Those same three fingers which he blessed withal;
Next cut the head off, once was crowned forsooth:
And last go fling all, fingers, head and trunk,
In Tiber that my Christian fish may sup!
-Robert Browning, 19th Century
The Roman Catholic Church has not always selected models of virtue and morality as its supreme ecumenical leader, the Pope. In fact, until modern times, the Catholic papacy has been a highly desirable political position for which many have killed, intrigued, conspired, extorted, bribed, and otherwise connived to obtain.
The popes of old were in many cases married with families. Others were adulterers and the fathers of many bastard children. They abused their power for personal gain. Many were simply unworthy of the place by dint of disposition.
History even records at least one infamous female pope, a woman who assumed the guise of a man and ascended to the papacy in the late 9th Century. She is known informally as “Pope Joan” (“Pope John VIII” officially). Legend has it she gave birth to an illegitimate child on the way to the basilica.
In 882 CE, she failed to die fast enough from a poison administered to her; her assassins instead bashed her skull in with hammers to speed up her demise. She has been purposely excised from the Church’s history as an embarrassment (although John VIII remains “on the books” as a male pope).
There is an apocryphal story (a wonderful but unproven one) that Pope Joan’s feminine usurping of the masculine papacy is memorialized in a strange chair created after her reign. This chair has a hole cut in the seat – the new pope is required to sit in it where an anonymous member of the Vatican must discreetly reach up from beneath the chair to feel if the Pope has testicles, confirming the new pontiff is indeed a man.
But such silliness pales when compared to the deadly serious business before Pope Stephen VII(VI): the exhumation and trial of a dead man in January 897 CE, a strange case in which rotting corpse was presented to an ecumenical court, properly garbed and placed in a witness-box for questioning, all for the sake of soothing the ruffled feathers of a politically powerful woman.
In recent memory the world saw the charismatic John Paul II transcend his job as a spiritual leader into that of international pop culture icon (there was even a song in the late 1970s during the Disco Era called “Disco Pope”).
John Paul II’s successor, Benedict XVI was also relatively popular, though without the star power of his predecessor. As proof of John Paul II’s popularity, Benedict XVI waived the normal 5-year investigative waiting period, and John Paul II was granted beatification on May 12, 2011 (his veneration was allowed by decree on December 21, 2009). As the next step toward canonization, the Church’s investigations into his life will continue to satisfaction, and although
Pope Benedict XVI, due to poor health and advanced age, resigned on February 28, 2013. He was the first to voluntarily give up the post since Pope Celestine V in 1294. [Pope Gregory XII also vacated the office in 1415, but he was coerced into doing so by schismatic concerns within the Western Church.]
Today’s newest pope, selected in the wake of Benedict XVI’s resignation, Pope Francis, is a first in many ways. Selected on
What is interesting about the papacy is that there is no equivalent position of authority in other religions. No other political and financial power greater than the Catholic Church has emerged historically that exerted such a global influence and presence – Christianity owes its survival to its very first corporate incarnation, Roman Catholicism. Without that power structure, the various factions of existing Christianity struggling for recognition, credibility, and supremacy up until about the 4th Century CE could never have united under one doctrinal umbrella.
Other religions certainly have their venerated leaders, their presidents, prophets, saints, martyrs, imams, ayatollahs, rabbis, et al. None has ever wielded the temporal clout of any Pope that has ever walked the planet. The mightiest Protestant leader of all time (whoever that person might be; certainly in the fractious world of Protestantism there is probably dissent), for example, could not hold a candle to the least of the Catholic Popes in terms of power, influence, and access to wealth. Right or wrong, the Roman Catholic Church has shaped civilization dramatically, changed world history (for better or worse) and has enforced its mighty will upon the masses, sometimes relentlessly and cruelly.
Because of the behaviors of recent popes, certainly those elected since the mid 19th Century up to today, the thought of rampant corruption in such an exalted office does not occur to the average person. These popes make the world tend to forget there have been many, many “bad” popes as well as “good”.
One of the worst was Formosus, a political animal whose scheming in life made him the target (in death) of a wrathful woman and a spiteful, weak-willed successor to his papacy.
A Woman Scorned
Agiltrude (sometimes spelled Ageltrude) was a Medieval Italianate duchess and consort of the Holy Roman Emperor. As the chatelaine (mistress of the château or castle) of the noble House of
By this time it was only popes who were crowning royalty and endorsing certain claimants to various thrones. As Holy Roman Emperor, Guido stepped into political and territorial realms traditionally reserved for the papacy. Guido extorted Formosus’ support for his own ends, and required the pope to also pledge his political allegiance to Guido’s son, Lambert (whom Guido was grooming to be his successor as Holy Roman Emperor). Guido, among other encroachments upon papal authority, also supported and installed a king in France not endorsed by the Vatican.
Upon Guido’s death in December 894 CE, Agiltrude took her son 14-year-old son, Lambert, to Rome to be confirmed by Pope Formosus as the sole Holy Roman Emperor after Guido’s demise. Agiltrude and her forces occupied Rome. In retaliation for Guido’s abuses of papal authority during his lifetime, Pope Formosus secretly recruited Arnulf of Carinthia (a descendant of Charlemagne, the first Holy Roman Emperor) to usurp the title, intent on insuring that Guido’s son Lambert never saw the Emperor’s crown placed upon his head.
Agiltrude was livid to find she’d been thwarted, and she fortified herself in the city, determined to force Lambert’s claim as Holy Roman Emperor. In the autumn of 895 Arnulf undertook his second Italian campaign; by February 896 he and his army stood at the foot of Rome’s walls. He successfully entered Rome and on February 22 was crowned Holy Roman Emperor by Pope Formosus in direct defiance of Agiltrude’s ambitions and his own earlier, albeit coerced, pledge of allegiance to support Lambert for the title.
Arnulf refused to give up his promised title of Holy Roman Emperor, and he drove Agiltrude and Lambert (and their entourage) into retreat. He marched against Spoleto to besiege the fleeing Lambert and his mother. Arnulf, however, was not able to hold his title for long – shortly after assuming the crown he suffered a paralyzing illness (maybe a stroke) which left him powerless.
Pope Formosus himself died only six weeks later on April 4, 896 CE; the way was paved for Lambert of Spoleto to assume the title of Holy Roman Emperor with Agiltrude’s influence in the Vatican. Lambert’s accession was unique: in a strange and twisted arrangement he actually shared the power of the throne with his mother, Agiltrude, the politically adept chatelaine. And Agiltrude never forgot that Pope Formosus had tried to undermine her political ambitions for both herself and her family.
Formosus was no saintly model of religious virtue – he was a conniving provocateur. He is believed to have been born about 816 CE (as a contemporary historian recorded upon his death he was an
He was nominated in 864 CE to the position of Cardinal-Bishop of Porto by Prince Nicholas I. Formosus’ fawning over this potentate ensured noble patronage. He allied himself with Hadrian II after Nicholas I’s death, and was sent on many diplomatic missions into France to pave the way for papal favorites to accede to the French throne and to the role of Holy Roman Emperor.
Formosus was involved in many complicated and dangerous intrigues, and by 875 CE he was entrusted with a diplomatic pass to invite Charles I (the Bald) to Rome so that Charles could be crowned Holy Roman Emperor on Christmas Day 875 by then Pope John VIII (reigned 872-882, the infamous “Pope Joan”).
Although Cardinal Formosus had done exactly what Pope Joan had wished for him to do, he took it into his head that he had somehow displeased the Vatican. His support of Charles over preferred rivals, (the widowed) Empress Engleberga and Louis the German, meant his life as well as that of many others were in danger from members of the pope’s entourage; Formosus became a fugitive with many other supporters of Charles. [A genuine area of concern for Pope Joan/John VIII was that as early as 872 Formosus’ name had been raised as a possible candidate or the papacy. The sitting pope may have perceived Formosus as a rival, causing his nervous flight.]
Pope John VIII convened a synod on April 19 ordering the fugitives to return to Rome. Formosus refused; in a second synod on June 30, Pope Joan condemned the disobedient, and Formosus and his renegade compatriots were all excommunicated.
A few years later after Pope Joan’s demise (by politically motivated murder) Formosus (still in exile in France) was recalled to Rome by the new pope, Marinus. In 883 CE Formosus was welcomed back into the fold of the Catholic Church, and he was given a diocese in Porto as he had led before. Several more short-lived popes came and went and in September 891 Formosus was elected.
The Holy Roman Empire was in complete chaos at this time with many kingdoms in disarray and succession crises rampant. It was during this period that Duke Guido of Spoleto took possession of Lombardy, assuming the title of king. His wife, Agiltrude de Benevento (or sometimes “Benevent”), was a noble from that land. The conquest of Lombardy meant Guido controlled the largest part of Italy; he was able to throw his political weight around effectively, and was crowned Holy Roman Emperor by a reluctant Stephen V. His underage son, Lambert, was later forcibly recognized as a co-ruler with his father. Pope Formosus’ allegiance was demanded but when Guido died he resisted Agiltrude’s political maneuverings to place her son into the highest secular office in the world (that of Holy Roman Emperor), earning a burning wrath so great she would act upon it after Formosus was dead.
Would the Real Stephen Please Stand Up?
One of many issues for historians when researching the early popes is in the nomenclature. The regnal numbering system (a name followed by a Roman numeral designating which pope of that name this version was) did not become standard and accepted practice by the Vatican until the mid 10th century. Because many popes carried the same first name, confusion can result if care is not taken to segregate the activities of the earliest pontiffs in research.
Thus, the “Stephen” line of popes became “contaminated” in March 752 CE when a Roman priest named Stephen was voted in as pope-elect to replace the recently deceased Pope
The next pope to carry the name Stephen was in 1057 CE, and by this time the numerical suffixes had been adopted and he was called Stephen III.
Later, however, an ecumenical council recognized that the pope-elect Stephen (who would have been Stephen II) had never assumed the Bishop of Rome’s robes; therefore, the Stephen in 1057 was technically Stephen II, and so on. To help keep the Stephens straight, the Vatican adopted a dual numbering system for such situations.
Thus, Stephen VII, when he became pope in 896 was in reality Stephen VI, and his name is recorded more often than not under the dual numbering system as Stephen VII (VI).
The man who became Pope Stephen VII (VI) on May 22, 896, remains mostly unknown to history. He is unremarkable and insignificant but for one act – he put the moldering corpse of a dead pope on trial as an act of retribution so infantile it has never been repeated.
Under the new pope Stephen (who succeeded Boniface, a pope that ruled for all of fifteen days after Formosus before dying) Lambert and Agiltrude recovered their authority in Rome by
In effect she wanted the papacy of Pope Formosus nullified as if he had never been elected or ruled. The reason for this is simply that her political power could then be re-connected in an unbroken chain back to her husband Guido. If Formosus had never been pope, then Arnulf could never have been Holy Roman Emperor. That meant her son Lambert’s claim was unbroken from the date of Guido’s death and by attrition his political clout in Italy would be strengthened.
It is unclear what possible inducement Agiltrude could have offered to Pop Stephen VII (VI) to gain his coöperation for what followed. As the popes of the time were not above sexual liaisons, illicit or marital, she may have used sex to entice him to act out her vengeance fantasy. As she was wealthy and powerful she may have offered him substantial riches or perhaps a secular position of power.
Regardless of how this fiasco was fomented Agiltrude succeeded. The puppet pope Stephen VII (VI) ordered the corpse of Pope Formosus disinterred from where it lay entombed. A synod was convened to hear the crimes of a dead pope.
Cadaver in Court
The dead pontiff’s eight-month-old corpse, without benefit of any preservation methods, was hauled into chambers. The body was dressed in its robes of office and propped upright on the papal throne that also served as the witness-box. The former Formosus was assigned counsel – a hapless deacon was tasked to act as defense for the mute defendant.
Predicated upon Agiltrude’s crazed sense of vengeance against Formosus the charges levied against the dead man were insanely contrived.
The proceedings began with a recitation: because Formosus had been excommunicated by Pope Joan/John VIII, he could not have been re-communicated by another pope. Therefore, he should never have been allowed to stand for pope and he was unworthy of the pontificate.
He was also accused or perjury and of being a bishop when he was technically a lay person (after being excommunicated). According to the twisted logic of Stephen’s outraged claims Formosus’ papacy was therefore invalid as he never should have been in the pontiff’s position. This meant any and all acts, measures, decrees, papal bulls, and other decisions or rulings made by him during his false papal term were annulled or declared invalid.
Proceedings mostly consisted of Stephen hurling invectives and accusations at the rotting corpse – Formosus’ beleaguered counsel could not get a word in edgewise to defend his client as Stephen’s ranting overrode any attempts at parliamentary procedure or decorum.
The dead Formosus was convicted of all charges, and his papacy was removed by decree. It never happened: by new poapal decree Formosus had never been a pope. Agiltrude received her vengeance; her dead enemy had been convicted as a heretic and a fraud. She would see her desire for vengeance, however, reach new lows soon enough, though.
Formosus’ corpse was stripped of its papal vestments, a symbolic gesture of his removal from the office of pontiff. The three fingers of his right hand, used in consecrations, were cut off. His mutilated body was tossed into a grave in a cemetery for foreigners. A few days later, however, it was ordered dug up and further abuses were heaped on the body. The battered cadaver was weighted and ordered tossed into the nearby Tiber River. But that was not the end of Formosus. His remains were fished from the river by a monk who retained possession of them.
Rest in Peace?
Stephen VII (VI) for this last over-the-top action was ostracized. He did not get to gloat over his big legal victory over the dead pope for long. He was deposed in the summer of 897 and imprisoned. In August 897, while incarcerated he was strangled to death on the orders of his successor, Pope Romanus.
Lambert of Spoleto (born about 880, and only a prepubescent lad when he was crowned King of Italy in 891), whose mother helped him keep the title of Holy Roman Emperor, did not hold onto his crown for much longer after the travesty that became known as The Cadaver Synod. The teenaged emperor had been on a hunting trip in Milan, and on his way back to Marengo on October 15, 898, he was killed. Sources differ as to cause of death – popular opinion holds he was thrown from a horse but it is just as likely he was assassinated.
Agiltrude, the instigating chatelaine whose political ambitions were the catalyst for the debacle of The Cadaver Synod lived another quarter century, dying on August 27, 923, probably in her late 50s.
Political and religious fallout continued in the wake of The Cadaver Synod, and Pope Formosus was not allowed to rest in peace. The pope after Pope Romanus (who had ordered Stephen’s murder) recovered the battered pontiff’s body from the monk who had cared for the waterlogged remains fished from the Tiber. He had the dead pope respectfully and properly re-interred with honors and he declared The Cadaver Synod itself as void, thus restoring legitimacy to Formosus’ papacy.
For several decades afterwards the legitimacy of The Cadaver Synod was hotly debated. As popes (on matters of doctrine) are considered infallible, it seemed as if Stephen’s ruling in Formosus’ case was valid after all. Sergius III (pope from 904-911 CE; he ordered the murder of his predecessor Pope Leo V, and he also had an illegitimate son who later became a pope himself, John XI) upheld Stephen’s conviction of Formosus. He even ordered that Pope Stephen VII (VI) be glorified for the posthumous trial and conviction of the dead pontiff. He even honored Stephen as a martyr!
Pope Sergius III’s word on the issue was the last. In effect, all the bishops ordained by Formosus were nothing more than lay people who would have needed to be re-ordained to execute their offices with official Church sanction. Any and all of his decrees are null. For all practical purposes he was never a pope. To date, no newer pope has taken another look at the ridiculous Cadaver Synod. It remains a black eye (one among many idiosyncratic black eyes, for sure) on the face of Catholic Church history.
Agiltrude got to rule by proxy however: as regent for her teenage son she was at one time Queen of Italy and later Holy Roman Empress. And she got even with the man who had delayed her political ambitions, though only after his death. Her influence remains in the Church’s recognition of the legality of The Cadaver Synod by upholding the conviction of the corpse of Pope Formosus.