You are currently viewing January 897, Rome: the exhumed corpse of Pope Formosus is put on trial, found guilty
Le Pape Formose et Étienne VII, by Jean-Paul Laurens, 1870 via Wikipedia

January 897, Rome: the exhumed corpse of Pope Formosus is put on trial, found guilty

Le Pape Formose et Étienne VII, by Jean-Paul Laurens, 1870 via Wikipedia
“Le Pape Formose et Étienne VII” by Jean-Paul Laurens, 1870 via Wiki Commons

January 897, Rome    

The exhumed corpse of Pope Formosus is put on trial, found guilty. 

In January 897 Pope Stephen VI charged controversial Pope Formosus with crimes against the papacy and called for Formusus to stand trial. However, Formosus had been dead for 7 months before the formal accusation. In a horribly misguided bid to gain favor from Formosa’s enemies, Pope Stephen VI moved to disinter Pope Formosus and have the corpse undergo a gruesome ecclesiastic trial, now known as the Cadaver Synod, or in Latin: Synod Horrenda.

By the end of the 9th century, the Italian political scene was volatile. Political rivalries spilled into the religious arena effecting a tumultuous succession of popes. Various powerful houses would back different papal candidates whose policies would benefit their own interests. With so many competing allegiances, a spate of mysterious deaths befell newly inaugurated popes who sometimes only served for a few days before being poisoned until their deaths. In this hostile climate, religious rivalries flourished.

Suspicions about Formosus started well before he was elected pope. Two decades before the Cadaver Synod, Pope John VIII accused Formosus of violating canon law by attempting to administer as bishop to more than one see and of conspiring to usurp the papacy. Formosus fled Rome to escape the accusations under threat of excommunication, finally returning to the city after John VIII died in 882. Just nine years later, and with three more popes elected and poisoned deceased, Formosus was elected pope. He served for four years, until his poisoning death in 896. Shortly after, Pope Formosus’-successor’s-successor Pope Stephen VII hoped to capitalize on the scandal that Formosus had left behind. Pope Stephen VI called Formosus to stand trial against the claims of Pope John VIII.

At the trial Formosus’ body, seven months dead, was clad in papal vestments and propped upright in a chair. While Pope Stephen VI screamed accusations and insults at the corpse, a young deacon provided the voice and rebuttals for Formosus. Unsurprisingly, deceased defendant Formosus (as speaking through a deacon) did not provide a compelling defense for his crimes. Thus Pope Stephen VII declared Formosus guilty of perjury, transmigrating sees, and posing as a bishop.

After the verdict, Formosus’ papacy was declared annulled in damnio memoriae: all of his deeds invalid. The papal vestments were torn from Formosus, and his three blessing fingers on the right hand severed to indicate that all his consecrations would be undone. Ironically, while alive Formosus had ordained Stephen VI as bishop. The undoing of the ordination would paradoxically make Stephen VI ineligible to be pope.

The trial concluded, Pope Stephen VI was not finished being spiteful. To further dishonor Formosus, Stephen VI ordered that the corpse be buried in cemetary land reserved for foreigners. Shortly after, to the increasing horror of the public, Formosus was exhumed a second time, weighted, then tossed into the Tiber River. Eventually his body washed up on shore. Reports spread that the body of Formosus performed miracles on the shore, and public opinion further turned against Pope Stephen VI.

Despite clumsy attempts to win people over by denouncing Formosus and repeatedly desecrating the corpse, the public rose against Pope Stephen. He was deposed, arrested, and strangled in prison months after the Cadaver Synod. Pope Formosa was reinterred at St. Peter’s Basilica.

Two of Pope Stephen VII’s successors, Pope Theodore II (897) and Pope John IX (898-900), nullified the Cadaver Synod. Though Pope Sergius III (904-911) overturned their nullifications and reinstated the findings of the trial. Despite Pope Sergius III having the last word, the church does not sanction it today, nor do they allow any more posthumous trials.

Contributed by Odd Salon Speaker Isolde Honore, who created a Cadaver Synod Stick Figure History

Further Reading:

Rome In The Dark Agesby Peter Llewellyn –

The Bad Popesby E.R. Chamberlin –

The Cadaver Synod: Strangest Trial in History – Donald E. Wilkes Jr.

Stick Figure History: The Cadaver Synod – Isolde Honore