For centuries, Pope’s have been held as some of the most influential world leaders across society. The standards we hold them to are so high that no one ever expects them to do anything out of the ordinary—which is why you’ll probably be surprised to learn about the life of Pope Formosus.
Or, rather, his death.
As the story goes, his rotten corpse was put on trial over a thousand years ago—and by another Pope, nonetheless. Let’s take a look at this bizarre event to uncover the full story behind one of the most talked-about religious occurrences in history.
The start of Pope Formosus’ demise begins in 9th Century Italy, when political tensions were at an all-time high. Formosus started his spiritual career with success, and was widely known for his efforts in converting the Bulgarians to Roman Catholicism. Of course, this victory gained him as many enemies as it did friends. Not many in the Papal court were thrilled to see such quick acclaim for a new political contender.
As his reputation blossomed, Formosus found himself accused of various crimes, from plotting to illegally gain Papacy for himself to attempting to become Archbishop of Bulgaria. The accusations became so severe that Pope John VIII excommunicated him in 878, only for Formosus to have his bishopric reinstated once he died. With the position available, Formosus soon found himself elected into becoming the new Papal leader.
Gaining the Throne
Formosus claimed the Papal throne from 891 to 896, but the timing couldn’t be worse. By then, most of western Europe was in shambles as great dynasties like the Carolingian Empire saw their end, and the rise of warfare with Viking and Muslim raiders became a commonality.
With enemies fighting for blood throughout the continent, the Papacy was powerless when these factions became involved in the Church’s political environment. Suddenly, Pope Formosus found himself, enemies, with leaders like the Holy Roman Emperor and Guy III of Spoleto.
Along the way, Formosus made some critical moves himself and was even involved in helping Arnulf of Carinthia become the new Emperor of Rome. However, his foes weren’t only external—they were also within the Church itself.
Pope Formosus’ reign came to an end with his death on April 4, 896, but it was not the conclusion of his story.
Seven months later, Pope Stephen VI—who had long been a political rival of his—demanded to place Formosus on trial for supporting King Arnulf’s rise to power. Of course, Formosus was long dead by then, which made the occasion nothing other than pure political theatre.
They propped his decaying body on a throne, and a Church deacon answered for him as Stephen interrogated the accused. To no surprise, he quickly found Formosus guilty. As punishment, he ordered three of his fingers to be severed, and his Papal clothing to be stripped from his body. The final insult came in throwing his corpse into the Tiber River, marking the Pope’s unfortunate end.
The story of Pope Formosus’ life and death is one that remains as bizarre now as it was centuries ago. While the influence of such religious figures is no longer as strong, Pope Stephen’s poor example remains proof that there can always be injustice within a justice system. Most of all, it’s a dire warning that we should always remain very, very careful when it comes to appointing our leaders.