The Time the Church Put a Pope's Corpse on Trial

Basilica of St. John Lateran, where the Cadaver Synod was held
Basilica of St. John Lateran, where the Cadaver Synod was held
iStock.com/Phooey

Plenty of odd things have been put on trial—animals, statues, a washerwoman's vat—but there's only one occasion in history that a dead body has gone before a papal court. The Cadaver Synod (Synodus Horrenda in Latin) has been called "one of the grisliest events in papal history," which, given the intrigues of the medieval church, is saying something.

The cadaver in question belonged to Pope Formosus, who suffered a series of dramatic reversals in both life and death. Born probably in Rome around 816, he was appointed bishop of the Italian city of Porto in 864 by Pope St. Nicholas I, who then sent him on a missionary expedition to Bulgaria. That went so well the King of Bulgaria wanted Formosus to lead an autonomous church there, but the request was denied by the then-current pope, John VIII, who thought Formosus was getting a little too big for his britches.

Nevertheless, Formosus remained a respected figure who played important roles in the church in France and Italy for decades—at least until he irritated John VIII enough to get excommunicated in 872. A later pope restored Formosus, and in 891 Formosus became pope himself. His five-year reign was relatively lengthy by the standards of the day, and it ended only when he died of a stroke in 896.

But in death, Formosus became famous for an even more dramatic reversal than any he had suffered in life. Yet another pope whom he'd annoyed, Stephen VI, had his nine-months-rotten corpse exhumed, dressed in papal vestments, perched on a throne, and forced to answer for his "crimes." Unsurprisingly, his answers weren't very convincing.

Pope Formosus
Pope Formosus in a 1588 portrait
Cavallieri, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

A complete understanding of the events that precipitated the Cadaver Synod involves following the politics of the papacy, Holy Roman Emperors, and Western European aristocrats for several decades. But as Laura Jeffries distills it in Great Events in Religion, "Essentially, Formosus encountered such a fearsome posthumous reprisal because he chose the losing side in one of many struggles for political control after fall of the Carolingian dynasty in 9th century." In other words, the cadaverous pope's crimes weren't so much spiritual as political, and emerged in the chaotic period that followed the death of Charlemagne—the first Holy Roman Emperor—in 814.

There were two main issues: First, Stephen VI belonged to the house of Spoleto, a powerful Roman family Formosus had angered in 894 after asking a Frankish king, Arnulf, to invade Italy. At the time, Guido of Spoleto (also known as Guy III) was the Holy Roman Emperor, but he was seen as an aggressive ruler who had little respect for the rights and privileges of the Holy See. The invasion was a failure, but it still smarted, and the Spoleto family never forgot the challenge to their precarious authority.

The second factor, according to Elizabeth Harper at Atlas Obscura, may have actually been more important. Although he was very much dead, poor, decomposing Formosus posed a challenge to Stephen VI's legitimacy. Ironically, that was because Stephen VI could be accused of some of the same crimes Formosus was charged with. These "crimes" amounted to being a bishop in two jurisdictions at once—both in Porto and the diocese of Rome, the latter a role that comes with the papacy—as well as openly aspiring to the papacy. By Stephen VI's logic, the double bishopric, a violation of canon law, invalidated Formosus's whole papacy, including all his acts and appointments.

That invalidation was handy, since as Harper explains, "Formosus had made Stephen bishop, and Stephen had become bishop of Rome … while he still held that post. But if Formosus could be found guilty of that same crime (being a simultaneous bishop of two places), his actions would be null and Stephen wouldn't have been a bishop when he was elected pope. Stephen also might have been completely insane.”

In any event, Formosus's body was exhumed from its burial place at Saint Peter's Basilica, dressed in papal robes, and seated for trial at the Basilica of St. John Lateran. There's no transcript of the trial, but Jeffries notes that by several accounts, "Stephen screamed and raved throughout the proceedings while a young deacon was forced to stand by and answer questions on behalf of the corpse." Partway through, an earthquake shook the building, presumably adding to the ominous vibe—although no one seems to have taken it as a sign to stop.

The assembled ecclesiastical authorities (whose gatherings are called a synod) found Formosus guilty on all counts. Since they couldn't kill him, he was stripped of his papal vestments and had the three fingers of his right hand that he'd used for consecration during his life severed. His body was buried in a common grave, but exhumed once again not long afterwards and thrown in the Tiber River.

However, Stephen IV suffered his own reversal, too. The outraged populace imprisoned him after the trial, and soon after that, some of Formosus's supporters strangled him to death in his cell.

Formosus's body didn't stay in the river long: Under the next few popes, it was pulled from the river, redressed in sacred robes, and reburied at St. Peter's Basilica. (It took a few popes to accomplish because they had the life expectancy of mayflies at that point.)

The period that followed was one of the most corrupt and tumultuous in the church's history, with rival factions jockeying for power and annulling one another's work if not outright killing each other. But there was one bright spot: In 898, Pope John IX wisely forbade the trial of any dead pope—or any dead person at all—in the future. Thus the Cadaver Synod would remain a unique, and uniquely terrible, event in history.

More Than 350 Franklin Expedition Artifacts Retrieved from Shipwreck of HMS Erebus

Drone image above the HMS Erebus shipwreck.
Drone image above the HMS Erebus shipwreck.
Parks Canada's Underwater Archaeology Team

From a shallow Arctic gulf, a treasure trove of objects from the HMS Erebus shipwreck has been brought to the surface for the first time in more than 170 years. The items could offer new clues about the doomed Franklin expedition, which left England in 1845 to search for the Northwest Passage. All 129 people perished from still-uncertain causes—a mystery that was fictionalized in the AMC series The Terror in 2018.

Marc-André Bernier, head of underwater archaeology at Parks Canada, said in a teleconference from Ottawa that this year’s research season was the most successful since the discovery of the HMS Erebus shipwreck in 2014. Parks Canada divers and Inuit located the HMS Terror, the second ship of the Franklin expedition, in 2016.

Parks Canada diver at HMS Erebus shipwreck
A Parks Canada diver retrieves a glass decanter at the HMS Erebus shipwreck.
Parks Canada's Underwater Archaeology Team

From mid-August to mid-September, 2019, the Parks Canada and Inuit research team began systematically excavating the large and complex shipwreck. “We focused on areas that had not been disturbed since the ship had sunk,” Bernier said. “Right now, our focus is the cabins of the officers, and we’re working our way toward the higher officers. That’s where we think we have a better chance of finding more clues to what happened to the expedition, which is one of the major objectives.”

Over a total of 93 dives this year, archaeologists concentrated on three crew members’ cabins on the port side amidships: one belonging to the third lieutenant, one for the steward, and one likely for the ice master. In drawers underneath the third lieutenant’s bed, they discovered a tin box with a pair of the officer’s epaulets in “pristine condition,” Bernier said. They may have belonged to James Walter Fairholme, one of the three lieutenants on the Erebus.

HMS Erebus shipwreck epaulets
A pair of epaulets, which may have belonged to third lieutenant James Walter Fairholme, was found at the HMS Erebus shipwreck.
Parks Canada's Underwater Archaeology Team

In the steward’s pantry, where items used to serve the captain were stored, divers carefully brushed away sediment to reveal dozens of plates, bowls, dish warmers, strainers, and more— about 50 serving pieces total. Bernier said some of the most exciting finds were personal objects that could be linked to individuals, such as a lead stamp with the inscription “Ed. Hoar,” for Edmund Hoar, the 23-year-old captain’s steward. They also found a piece of red sealing wax with a fingerprint of its last user.

Dishes at HMS Erebus shipwreck
Divers found dishes in the steward's pantry at the HMS Erebus shipwreck.
Parks Canada's Underwater Archaeology Team

Other intriguing items brought to the surface include a glass decanter, found in the officers’ mess area on the lower deck, which may have held brandy or port; a high-quality hairbrush with a few human hairs still in the bristles; and a cedar-wood pencil case. All of the artifacts are jointly owned by the Government of Canada and Inuit.

Hairbrush from HMS Erebus shipwreck
A hairbrush discovered at the HMS Erebus shipwreck still had a few human hairs in the bristles.
Parks Canada's Underwater Archaeology Team

The extensive recovery was made possible by a new research barge, which was moored over the shipwreck and provided hyperbaric chambers and hot-water suits. While wearing the suits, divers were able to stay in the frigid waters for about 90 minutes at a time; they spent over 100 hours examining the wreck this year.

The HMS Erebus’s size and excellent state of preservation mean there’s much more to discover, Bernier said. The Erebus is 108 feet long, and though the upper deck has collapsed, there are 20 cabins on the main deck. They’ve examined only three so far. “There are tens of thousands of artifacts still there,” Bernier tells Mental Floss. “We’re going to be very focused and save what needs to be saved, and go to places [in the wreck] where there are good chances of finding the most information that is valuable for the site.”

Parks Canada and Inuit archaeologists
Parks Canada and Inuit archaeologists set up instruments near the HMS Erebus shipwreck.
Parks Canada's Underwater Archaeology Team

As with the findings from previous research seasons, many questions about the shocking demise of the Franklin expedition remain unanswered. How and when did the HMS Erebus sink after both ships were abandoned in spring 1848, having been trapped in ice since September 1846? Which officers and crew were among the 24 men who had died by that time, and why so many?

Bernier tells Mental Floss there’s even a new mystery to solve. Near Edmund Hoar’s items, divers found another artifact that also bore the name of a crew member—mate Frederick Hornby. “Originally, when the ships set sail, he was not on Erebus, he was on Terror,” Bernier says. “So this object jumped ship at one point. How did that happen? Was Hornby transferred to Erebus; did they abandon one ship and put everybody on the other one? Was it something somebody recovered after he died? Was it given to somebody? With one object, we can start to see [new] questions. Hopefully, by piecing all of this together, we can actually start pushing the narrative of the story in some interesting direction.”

8 Things That Happened on Leap Day

On Leap Day in 1692, the first warrants were issued in the Salem Witch Trials.
On Leap Day in 1692, the first warrants were issued in the Salem Witch Trials.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Since Leap Day comes just once every four years, events that happen on February 29 are somewhat rare. Check out these eight events that are extra memorable thanks to their timing.

1. On Leap Day in 1940, Hattie McDaniel won an Academy Award.

Actress Hattie McDaniel took home an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress at the 1940 Academy Awards for her role as Mammy in Gone with the Wind. The win made her the first African American to receive the award.

2. Buddy Holly’s lost glasses were found on Leap Day in 1959.

Buddy Holly in his signature glasses
Buddy Holly in his signature glasses.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The singer's famous glasses disappeared for more than two decades after he died in a plane crash near Clear Lake, Iowa, in 1959. Holly’s trademark frames, along with the Big Bopper’s watch, were thrown clear of the plane wreckage. The items remained buried in the snow until the spring thaw, when they were turned over to the County Sheriff’s office and filed away in a sealed manila envelope, where they were forgotten. The envelope was rediscovered in 1980 by County Sheriff Jerry Allen, who came across it while looking for old court records. The discovery was announced on February 29, 1980. The glasses were returned to Holly’s widow, Maria Elena.

3. The Henriksen siblings—all of them—were born on Leap Day.

On February 29, 1960, Heidi Henriksen was born. Her brother, Olav, joined the family exactly four years later. And in 1968, to the day, Leif-Martin Henriksen entered the world. The Norwegian siblings held the Guinness record for most babies born on a Leap Day until 2012, when the Estes family from Utah tied them: Xavier Estes was born on February 29, 2004; Remington Estes in 2008; and Jade Estes in 2012.

4. Davy Jones died on Leap Day in 2012.

In 2012, the Monkee passed away after suffering a heart attack. He was just 66, leaving many fans in shock at his unexpected death.

5. Hank Aaron became the highest-paid Major League Baseball Player on Leap Day.

A $200,000-a-year contract might seem like peanuts for a MLB player today, but by 1972 standards, it was a big deal. So big, in fact, that the three-year contract Aaron inked to play for the Atlanta Braves made him the highest paid baseball player in the league.

6. The future Pope John Paul II was nearly killed on Leap Day.

Pope John Paul II riding in the Popemobile
Pope John Paul II riding in the Popemobile in 2004.

Back when he was just 24-year-old Karol Wojtyla, Pope John Paul II was walking home when a German army truck hit him and left him on the road for dead. The driver of a lumber truck picked him up and took him to the hospital, where Wojtyla remained unconscious for nine hours. It’s said that the incident inspired him to switch to a spiritual career path.

7. Family Circus debuted on Leap Day in 1960.

On February 29, 1960, Bil Keane’s long-running comic strip debuted as The Family Circle. Inspired by Keane’s own wife and children, Family Circus is now drawn by Keane’s youngest son, Jeff—the inspiration for “Jeffy” in the comic strip.

8. The first warrants were issued in the Salem Witch Trials on Leap Day.

Salem residents Sarah Good, Sarah Osborne, and Tituba were accused of witchcraft on February 29, 1692. After refusing to confess, Good was hanged and Osborne died in prison; Tituba, a slave, admitted to her supposed crimes and was released from jail a year later.

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