Perhaps there is a good reason to refer to the centuries that followed the Fall of the Roman Empire as the ‘Dark Ages.’ The term certainly applied to the sinister dealing of the Papacy during the late 9th and early 10th centuries. Although the principal character is Stephen VI, who in 896, began his 15 month reign as head of the Church. One cannot tell the story without first telling the tale of his predecessor, Formosus, Pope from 891 to 896. During the 8th, 9th and 10th centuries, the early Holy Roman Empire was consumed by a series of wars, feuds among nobles and external meddling that fanned the flames of dissent. During this time, the imperial politics of the Papacy created situations that were as far from holy as one could imagine.
Formosus became Pope in this environment and immediately alienated virtually everyone in the Church’s hierarchy. Officially, this was because of his heretical ideas about how the Holy Spirit emanates from within the Holy Trinity. Unofficially, Formosus’ unpopularity stemmed from a dispute over which bishops received the proceeds from Rome’s many brothels, as well as a feud with Guy of Spoleto, who was crowned King of Italy in 889 and Holy Roman Emperor in 891.
Pope Formosus’ Checkered Past
Formosus was made Cardinal Bishop of Porto, Italy, in 864 by Pope St. Nicholas I. In 875, he incurred the wrath of Pope John VIII over Papal politics and was excommunicated. He fled from Rome, but cut a deal three years later to return to the Church, as long as he remained in exile. He was finally absolved under Pope Marinus I, who restored him to his See of Porto in 883. During the pontificates of Popes Marinus, St. Adrian III and Stephen V, Formosus’ influence grew and he was elected Pope in 891.
Murder and More Murder?
The feud between Formosus and the Holy Roman Emperor Guy and his son Lambert reached the point of a ‘Holy War.’ Formosus supported Arnulf of Carinthia (located in the eastern Alps of Austria) and wanted Guy out. The first skirmish took place in Trento in 893. The Austrian army was decimated by the flu and the outnumbered, but ever resourceful Guy, simply bribed the forces to leave; however the following year, the forces returned. Now a healthy army launched battle in Bergamo leading to Guy’s loss and with it, that of Milan and Trento. When he died in December 894, his 16 year-old son Lambert assumed the titles of his father and the legacy of battles with Pope Formosus and with Arnulf of Carinthia. As luck would have it, the enemies of Spoleto both died in 896; Arnuf was struck by paralysis and died soon thereafter. Formosus’ death was somewhat less dramatic, but nonetheless mysterious and very suspicious. It was rumored that Lambert’s mother Ageltrude had ‘arranged’ for both of the deaths. Formosus’ successor was Boniface VI, who was brought to power by a mob of rioters. He is little more than a footnote in history. At a synod in Rome (an ecclesiastical court) held by John IX in 898, the election of Boniface VI was pronounced null and void. Prior to his reign, the two-week Pope had twice incurred a sentence of deprivation of orders as a subdeacon and as a priest. After a pontificate of fifteen days, he is said to have died of the gout. That is the official story. Most believe that he was murdered to make way for Stephen VI, the candidate of the Spoletan party. It seemed that a lot of people who opposed Lambert and his powerful Regent Ageltrude, were dying of the gout and other assorted maladies. Both Lambert and his mother sought vengeance in the name of Guy of Spoleto and in short order, their candidate, Stephen, became Pope, literally over the dead bodies of his two predecessors.
Stephen was the son of a Roman priest named John (priestly celibacy was not required at the time). He had been consecrated Bishop of Anagni. It has been suggested that Stephen did not want the position, but Pope Formosus forced him to accept. As a bishop, Stephen distinguished himself by having no distinguishing characteristics whatsoever. His theological opinions are unknown. He had absolutely no impact on contemporary Church chronicles and he contributed nothing to the organizational structure of the Church. As anonymous as he appears to be regarding Church doctrine, he was a very effective politician and steadily advanced through a series of important jobs near the top of the Church hierarchy.
The Cadaver Synod
It was as Pope that Stephen really made his mark. During his year in the holy office, Stephen overturned every decision Formosus made as Pontiff, revoked all of his appointments (which was technically a problem, since Formosus had ordained Stephen) and launched a purge of Roman politics on behalf of the 16-year-old Holy Roman Emperor Lambert and his mother Ageltrude.
In what has been called “the strangest and most terrible trial in human history” and “one of the grisliest events in Papal history,” at the behest of Lambert and Ageltrude, in January of 897, Stephen had Formosus (who had been dead for nine months) exhumed and charged with heresy, plus numerous arcane offenses against the Church. A deacon was assigned to speak on behalf of His ex-Holiness, who exercised his celestial right to remain silent throughout the proceedings.
At Stephen’s command, the late Pope was dressed in the vestments of office and sat upon the Papal throne in the Basilica of St. John Lateran. The deacon, who was assigned to speak for the dead Pope knelt behind the throne to answer on Formosus’ behalf. As the ‘voice’ of deceased Pontiff, the deacon did not do a stellar job. When asked, “Why did you usurp the Papacy?” The deacon responded “Because I was evil!”
Conviction was a foregone conclusion. Stephen ordered that the corpse be stripped of its robes and retroactively deprived of any Papal stature. The three fingers that Formosus had used to bless people were cut off and his body was reburied in a common grave. A short time later, the body was dug up by grave robbers, but finding nothing more than a rotting corpse dressed in the rags of a commoner, they threw the body into the Tiber river. It was eventually and secretly recovered by a monk, who saw the location of the Pope’s body in a vision.
Aftermath – More Murder
The obscenity of digging up a rotting corpse and mutilating it after a ridiculous show trial was a bit much, even by 9th century standards. Within a few months of the Cadaver Synod, Stephen was deposed and tossed into jail. In what may rightly be called an Act of God, at this time, an earthquake caused the roof of the Basilica of St. John Lateran, the scene of the trial, to collapse.
Stephen’s successor, Romanus, reversed all of Stephen’s decrees, restored Formosus to his rightful place and celebrated his success by having Stephen strangled! Later, Pope Theodore II reinstated Formosus’ ordinations and solemnly buried his body, while Pope John IX condemned Stephen’s synod and burned its acts. Lambert was murdered at the age of 18 in 998 when he “fell from his horse.” It was a murderous time in Rome and that would continue for another decade.
The intrigue became complex and malicious, casting a shadow over the Papacy. From 896 to 904, there was a bloodstained succession of seven popes and one anti-pope, most of whom were concerned with either reinstating Formosus’ memory or with degrading it further.
In 904, another murderous Pope ascended the throne, Sergius III. Seven years of blood, intrigue and terror followed. Not a lot is known about Sergius III prior to his Papacy, but he is well remembered for his plotting before and during his reign. He orchestrated the murder of his predecessor Leo V from prison and had a child with a mistress who would grow up to be Pope John IX. Of noble birth, Sergius was a deacon when he was made Bishop of Caere by Pope Formosus. Later, Sergius became a supporter of Pope Stephen VI. He also participated as a co-judge in the Cadaver Synod. His main concerns during his reign were his power and sex life, with other Papal responsibilities falling by the wayside.
More Intrigue, More Murders
Sergius was elected Pope by Stephen’s party in 898, but so was the opposing faction’s candidate, Pope John IX. Sergius attempted to seize the Papacy, but underestimated his adversaries. He was expelled from Rome. The years that followed saw a succession of very short reigns. Pope Romanus from August to November 897, but that was far longer than his successor Pope Theodore II who lasted for twenty days in December 897. Pope John IX held the Papal throne from 898 to 900 and Pope Benedict IV from 900 to 903. Pope Leo V only lasted from July to October 903, when he was driven out of Rome by Christopher, later branded as an anti-pope (one who has not been canonically chosen). In January 904, Sergius, with the military help from Spoleto, reappeared in Rome and deposed Christopher. To clear up loose ends, he had both Christopher and Leo strangled. Sergius was consecrated Pope on January 29, 904.
Sergius III owed his rise to the power to his new patron Theophylact and rewarded him with the position of sacri palatii vestararius, the principal official at the top of Papal patronage, in other words, the man in in control of the disbursements. All of the real power was now in the hands of Theophylact, while Sergius essentially became his puppet.
Sergius held a synod that reaffirmed the “Cadaver Synod,” once again invalidating all of Formosus’ ordinations and reopening the rift within the Church. He also pronounced John IX, Pope Benedict IV, Leo V and Christopher as anti-popes (history has shown him to be 1 for 4 on that count). Perhaps his greatest claim to fame was that Sergius was the lover of Theophylactus’ daughter Marozia and the father of her son, the future Pope John XI. Thus, he is the only Pope to be the father of a Pope. Sergius also restored the Lateran Basilica, which had collapsed following the posthumous trial of Formosus. Writers have not been kind to this era of Church history, where politics, treachery and murder replaced the Holy Trinity as the guiding forces of the Papacy.