The Absurd Story Of The Pope Who Put His Predecessor’s Corpse On Trial

Pope Stephen VI despised his predecessor — Pope Formosus, who reigned from 891 to 896 — because he felt Formosus had assumed the papacy illegally. So extreme was this hatred that Stephen VI decided to formally try Formosus for his crimes.

But there was an issue: Formosus had been dead for over a year.

Stephen VI was undeterred. And instead of merely putting Formosus posthumously on trial, Stephen VI had Formosus’ rotting corpse exhumed, dressed in full papal garb, given a lawyer, and propped up on the stand as if it were any other inquest.

The events that led up to the Cadaver Synod actually began before Formosus’ reign. While Rome had once been the undisputed epicenter of the Papal States, smaller cities around it were starting to flourish. Rifts began forming within the Church, which had previously established a unified front, and the papacy was becoming something men were aspiring to as a position of power more than divine leadership.

Formosus’ rise to the papacy received momentum when he was appointed bishop by John VIII. The new bishop had been a successful missionary and was known for spreading Catholicism in the Bulgar kingdom. However, because of his success, rumors abounded that he had taken up residence as the bishop of more than one city, which would have violated Church policy.

Fearing Formosus’ growing influence, John VIII excommunicated him.

In fact, shortly after excommunicating Formosus, John VIII was assassinated. Then, following a series of short-lived popes, Formosus finally took the papacy.

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