A 9th Century Pope’s death did not stop Rome from putting him on trial

by Shirley Williams
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When it comes to punishing previous leaders, the early medieval papacy didn’t let death stop them. Over 1,000 years ago, the Catholic church was facing some real struggles. Rome and Constantinople were locked in a bitter dispute over which of them was the true head of the Christian church. Bulgaria and Hungary were places where waves of recent immigrants had settled. This made the tensions between Rome and Constantinople increase. Both tried to gain sovereignty over a church population that was changing as well as shifting allegiances.

Leaders of Christendom

The conflicts between Rome and Constantinople were often based on the important question of what qualities were necessary to be possessed by the leaders of Christendom. This was a time when it was common to use something similar to the medieval method for impeachment. There existed a church synod in Rome. It was designed to make it possible for any person holding the highest office in Christendom to be put on trial for any type of violations of the customs or traditions of their office. A very well-known synod occurred during January 897. The synod heard charges against a former pontiff. His name was Formosus, and he was pope from 891 to 896.


The main challenge for the synod was that by the time the trial of Formosus had started, he’d been dead for months. At this time, there was a new pope named Stephen VI. He had a strong opinion that even if a leader had left their office, they should still face punishment for all of their transgressions.

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Corpse on trial

At the request of the new pope, the synod went ahead with the trial under some rather ghoulish circumstances. Pope Stephen VI demanded the corpse of Formosus be taken out of its sarcophagus and moved to the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome. There it would be put on trial. During the trial, the corpse was seated on a throne and covered with papal vestments. It was alleged that Formosus had intentionally broken the rules of the church. A deacon stood near the corpse and provided answers to questions asked of Formosus. The new pope charged the corpse with breaking an oath to not return to Rome. It was also charged with having illegally obtained the title of pope. The reason was the corpse was only a bishop when it was made pope and popes needed to have obtained the rank of cardinal.

Alleged crimes

Other alleged crimes committed by Formosus took place several years before the trial. Formosus was excommunicated in July 876 for being involved with European power politics. This meant he was prohibited from celebrating mass given by Pope John VIII. The excommunication sentence was removed by Marinus I in 878. Formosus was then able to go back to his job as bishop of Porto.


Formosus convinced Arnulf of Carinthia to advance to Rome. It was done to remove the reigning emperor. This resulted in Formosus being charged with insurrection. In 896, Arnulf seized Rome by force. Before Arnulf could move against other opposition, he was struck with paralysis. He was then unable to continue with his campaign. During the Middle Ages, paralysis was considered divine punishment.

New popes

During this time, new popes were put in charge of the church at an alarming rate. Between 896 and 904 there were several new popes. Pope Boniface VI was the successor to Formosus. He died two weeks after being made pope. Stephen VI was then given the papal throne. Initially, he was a supporter of Formosus, but Stephen VI decided to align himself with the most powerful family in Rome who did not like Formosus.

At the conclusion of the trial, Stephen VI declared that Formosus was guilty. He stated Formosus was not able to legally become pope since he was a bishop at the time he was awarded the papal throne. He also declared Formosus had ignored his oath of not celebrating mass. After being declared guilty, all the decisions, measures, and acts of Formosus as pope were annulled. All priestly orders given by him were made invalid. The papal vestments on his dead body were torn away. The three fingers used by the dead pope for consecrations were removed from his body. The corpse of Formosus was then buried in a cemetery for strangers. A few days later, the body was dug up and then thrown into the river Tiber.

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