Saturday, February 21, 2009


A century after Charlemagne’s time, Rome was again deeply riven by factional chaos, the city paralysed as two syndicates battled for control of the papacy, its wealth and possessions. This time it was the factions of Formosus (pope 891-896 CE) and the man who occupied the Throne of Saint Peter soon after his death, Stephen VI (896-897). The state of war between the two camps reached its nadir at the “Synod Horrenda”, otherwise called the “Synod of the Cadaver”, in early 897, at which the rotting corpse of the eight months dead Formosus was put on “trial” by Stephen.

‘The corpse was provided with a counsel, who wisely kept silent while Pope Stephen raved and screamed his insults at it... The real crime of Formosus was that he had been a member of the opposite faction and had crowned “emperor” one of the numerous illegitimate descendants of Charlemagne after having performed the same office for the candidate favoured by Pope Stephen’s party.’1

On the grounds of this disagreement, and the various other pretexts for which his corpse had been dragged from its tomb and re-clad in papal robes, Formosus was duly found guilty and condemned. As the death sentence was no longer an option, Pope Stephen ordered the corpse be stripped of its papal vestments, and the three now skeletal fingers of the right hand once used for blessing to be chopped off. The corpse was then dragged around the streets of Rome, no doubt as a public warning to those who still supported the faction of Formosus, before being tossed into the Tiber. The body was later recovered by fishermen, who re-buried it properly.

No such final dignity awaited Pope Stephen. The supporters of Formosus, unbowed by the ghastly display, rose against the pope and imprisoned him, before having him strangled just a few months after the notorious “trial” he staged. That murder in turn led to all-out war on the streets of Rome. Years of chaos ensued, with the papal office virtually a revolving door, with popes murdered and bloodshed rife.

‘Stephen was followed by Romanus (897), who was deposed after four months and apparently imprisoned in a monastery. Theodore II (897) served for only 20 days, dying of natural causes, to be followed by John IX (898-900) who was pope for two years, while Benedict IV (900-903) managed three. Benedict may have been murdered, though that is not certain, but Leo V (903), who followed him certainly was. Leo was imprisoned by the priest Christopher who proclaimed himself (an anti)pope. He was then put to death, along with Christopher, by Sergius III (904-911).’2

According to historian Eamon Duffy, 'a third of the popes elected between 872 and 1012 died in suspicious circumstances... Stephen VIII (939-942) [was] horribly mutilated, a fate shared by the Greek antipope John XVI (997-8) who, unfortunately for him, did not die from the removal of his eyes, nose, lips, tongue and hands.’3

For well over a century the Church and papacy would remain wracked with violence, murder and mutilation.

1. Chamberlin, R., The Bad Popes, Sutton Publishing, Phoenix Mill, 2003, p20
11. Walsh, M.J., The Popes: 50 Celebrated Occupants of the Throne of St Peter, Quercus Publishing, London, 2007, p73
12. Duffy, E., Saints and Sinners: a History of the Popes, Yale University Press, 1997, p83

Further information on my book: