The Cadaver Synod: When a Dead Pope Was Put on Trial

Updated on September 25, 2019
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Dean Traylor is a freelance writer and teacher who writes about various subjects including education and creative writing.


In 897 A.D., Catholic Pope Stephen (VI) VII had a grudge against a predecessor. Enraged by the actions committed by Pope Formosus nearly thirty years earlier, the new pope wanted justice by any means necessary. And the necessary action he took was to put Pope Formosus on trial – despite being dead for nine months.

This particular trial was known as the Cadaver Synod (also known as the Cadaver Trial or, in Latin, the Synodus Horrenda). In one of the strangest events in the history of the medieval papacy, a dead pope was exhumed, tried by a papal court and found guilty of crimes that would be considered minor by today’s standards. Yet behind this macabre trial, a political struggle between powerful European families was at play. And it would be this game of medieval politics that would have serious repercussions for Pope Stephen VI, and the late Pope Formosus.

The Synod’s Origins

Although the Holy Roman Empire had emperors, the popes had the power, for they ruled over a confederation of European states and kingdoms loosely connected by the Catholic Church. They could decide the fate of countries; declare wars; or crown emperors and kings throughout Europe. This was particularly true during the 9th century when Rome and Italy were united by unstable governments and internal turmoil.

Yet, with all the power these popes had, they were usually aligned or controlled by powerful aristocratic families. In many cases, these families gained power by electing a pope. This relationship often blurred the line between who was in power and who was being controlled.

From this turmoil, the Cadaver Synod’s origins were born. However, much of the intrigue found behind the scenes of papal power was not played out in front of the public. Instead, the truth was covered up. The “official accusation” of this trial was an example.

Formosus quickly came to a solution to his problem; he “invited” the Franks to invade Italy. Arnuf obliged in 896, deposing Lambert.

The charge levied against Formosus by Pope Stephen VI was that he violated church law by serving as Bishop of Rome while he was still the bishop of a different diocese (Christianity-guide, 2011). The charges, however, hid a real motive; Formosus supported Stephen and his ally’s enemies for the Holy Roman Empire’s crown.

During his papacy, Formosus had been forced to crown Lambert, a son of the powerful Duke of Spoleto, as co-ruler of the Holy Roman Empire. However, Formosus was no alley to the Spoleto family. He favored the illegitimate descendant of Charlemagne and leader of the Frankish people, Arnuf of Carinthia.

Formosus quickly came to a solution to his problem; he “invited” the Franks to invade Italy. Arnuf obliged in 896, deposing Lambert. The pope wasted no time crowning Arnuf as the new Emperor.

This didn’t last long. Arnuf was struck with paralysis during a military campaign, and Formosus died on April 4, 896.

Formosus’s successor, Pope Boniface VI didn’t last long. Two weeks after ascending to the papacy, Boniface died of what many believe was gout. Others, believe he may have been forced out to make way for Stephen VI (and, as a side note, Boniface would have his own synod in 898, in which John IX pronounced his election as null and void).

Stephen VI’s reign as pope didn’t last long, either. It lasted merely a year and a half, and much of that time was centered on this trial against Formosus.

The Trial

While the trial was seen as purely political, it may have also been a tactic to protect his claim to the papacy. According to the defunct site,, Stephen may have been guilty of committing the same type of crime he levied against his predecessor.

Stephen had become the bishop of Rome while serving as bishop of Anagni. Formosus had consecrated Stephen as a bishop during this time. However, by annulling Formosus past acts as a pope; it negated Stephen’s own infraction and made him legally eligible for the papacy.

And, of course, the trial allowed Stephen the chance to put Lambert of Spoleto back in power. Despite this cunning and savvy political move on Stephen’s part, the trial was best remembered for its macabre spectacle and its aftermath.

For the trial, Formosus was exhumed, dressed in his papal vestments, and propped on a throne for a trial at the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome (The trial was fueled by pressure from the Spoleto group and Stephen’s own fury).


Formosus was given legal counsel. A deacon was appointed to answer all questions levied against the accused. Stephen served as chief prosecutor, in which he read the accusations against Formosus, and then shouted his arguments at the corpse. Of course, the corpse had no argument, thus leading to a final verdict of guilty.

As a result of the verdict, Formosus was stripped of his sacred vestments, clad in layman garb, had three fingers hacked off his right hand (the ones used for benedictions), had all his ordinations annulled, and was buried. But, burial wasn’t good enough. Formosus was later re-exhumed and thrown in the TiberRiver.

Then, this strange story takes another bizarre turn. Reports started surfacing that the body washed up on the banks of the river. Rumors swirled that the corpse was now performing miracles. This eventually led to outrage among the citizens and the very powerful family that supported Stephen.

The outrage of the trial made Stephen extremely unpopular

As a result, Formosus was getting his revenge from the grave. The synod did little to help Stephen. In order to be in power in Rome, Lambert and his mother Ageltrude renounced their broader claims in central Italy.

The outrage of the trial made Stephen extremely unpopular. Within a few months of completing the Synods, he was stripped of power, imprisoned, and then executed by strangulation.

The Cadaver Synod was eventually annulled in December 897 by Pope Theodore II. Later, Pope John IX also nullified the synod and ordered the “acta” of the Cadever Synod destroyed, and prohibited any future trial of a dead person.

This officially put an end to the trial. However, it was not the last time Formosus would be put on a trial. Despite John IX’s edict, Pope Sergius III, a bishop, co-judge in the Synod, and ally of Stephen VI reaffirmed Formosus’ conviction.

In 904, Formosus was exhumed, re-tried, and again found guilty. This time, according to accounts, Formosus’s corpse was beheaded and then thrown into the Tiber.

Since then, the Catholic Church has banned any future physical prosecutions of long dead corpse, according to Kim Seabrook in her 2009 ariticle for Also, Pope Formosus and his acts were posthumously reinstated

Pope Formosus: Guilty or Innocent?

Do you think Pope Formosa was guilty of innocent of the crime?

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This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2017 Dean Traylor


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