One of the most gruesome events in papal history, held in
January 897 by Pope Stephen VI (VII) during which the corpse
of Pope Formosus (891-896) was exhumed and placed on trial.
The terrible synod was orchestrated by Lambert of Spoleto
(d. 898), who was a bitter political enemy of Formosus,
never forgiving him for appealing in 893 to Arnulf, King of
the East Franks for aid against the Spoletan family,
especially his father Guido (Guy) III of Spoleto (d. 894)
and for crowning Arnulf emperor after the pontiff had
already reconfirmed his father emperor and had crowned
Lambert had emerged as virtual ruler of Italy with the
departure of Arnulf in 896 after the latter's bout of
paralysis had cut short his hopes of stamping out the
Spoletan party. Lambert harbored plans for revenge against
Formosus, but the pontiff died shortly after Arnulf's
retreat back to Germany.
Following the very brief pontificate of Boniface VI (April
896), Stephen was elected pope, coming under the immediate
influence of Lambert, whose cause he supported. Lambert,
encouraged by his equally spiteful mother, Ageltrude,
finally wreaked his vengeance on Formosus, albeit
posthumously, early the next year. Having stirred up
anti-Formosan sentiment among the populace and nobility of
Rome, Lambert commanded Stephen to convene a synod to try
the dead pope on assorted charges such as perjury, canonical
violations, and ambition in seeking the papacy.
What made the proceeding so grotesque was Stephen's decision
to have Formosus appear personally. The rotting corpse was
taken out of the tomb, dressed in vestments, and propped up
in a chair. A deacon, standing behind the body, answered on
its behalf. To no one's surprise, Formosus was found guilty.
His acts and ordinations were proclaimed null and void, his
body was mutilated-three fingers on his right hand were cut
off-and he was placed in a common grave. After a little
while, the corpse was dragged out of the earth and hurled
into the Tiber.
A hermit retrieved the remains and gave the pope a decent
burial. Pope John IX (898-900) declared the actions of the
cadaver synod annulled. Its acts were burned, and a
declaration made that no posthumous trials were ever too be
held again. Stephen, meanwhile, had fallen from power was
stripped of his office and strangled while in prison.