Pontificate: Oct. 6, 891 to April 4, 896. Of Roman origin, Formosus played an important role in papal affairs for more than a quarter of a century before becoming pope. He was consecrated bishop of Porto in 864 by Pope nicholas i, who selected him to lead the missionary party that went to Bulgaria in 866 at the request of King Boris. Formosus was so successful in that venture that Boris sought to have him made an archbishop to serve as head of an autonomous Bulgarian church. It was a request that Nicholas denied, perhaps because he suspected that it had more to do with Formosus' ambition than with Boris' wishes. Formosus took an active part in the proceedings of the Roman synod of 869, which denied the right of photius to be Patriarch of Constantinople. In 869 and again in 872 he served as papal legate on missions sent to the West Frankish and the East Frankish kingdoms. He played an important role in the complex maneuvering by Pope john viii that ended in 875 with the selection of Charles the Bald, king of the West Franks, to succeed Louis II as emperor. But Formosus' prominent role in the papal affairs was abruptly interrupted in 876, when he and a circle of prominent clerical and civil officials were forced by John VIII to flee Rome. When the fugitives refused the papal command to return to Rome, John VIII excommunicated them. After several years in exile in the West Frankish kingdom, Formosus was permitted to return to Rome and was restored to his see at Porto by pope marinus i. In 885 he as bishop of Porto was called on to consecrate Pope stephen v, and he himself was elected pope in 891.
As had been the case since the pontificate of Nicholas I (858–867), appeals continued to flow to the Roman curia requiring decisions by the pope. Although Photius had been deposed as patriarch in 886, opposing parties in Constantinople were still seeking to resolve problems associated with his patriarchate, especially the issue of the legality of his ordinations. Asked for a ruling on this matter, Formosus insisted that those ordained by Photius must surrender their positions, a decision that impeded the efforts of those in Constantinople anxious to put an end to the Photian schism and to make peace with Rome. Disputes arising from challenges to the jurisdiction of metropolitans and from contested episcopal elections continued to be appealed to Rome; Formosus made every effort to assure that papal authority in settling such matters was honored. At the urging of Archbishop Fulk of Reims, Formosus lent his support to the cause of Charles the Simple in his struggle against Eudo, count of Paris, for kingship of the West Frankish kingdom.
These activities reminiscent of the pontificates of such great Carolingian popes as adrian i (772–795) and Nicholas I were in fact misleading in terms of the actual situation facing the papacy and the papal state as the ninth century neared its end. The problem, long in the making, was fundamental. Since the pontificate of stephen ii (752–757) the survival of the Papal State and the capability of the pope to act independently on behalf of the Christian community had depended on a protector willing and able to guarantee the territorial integrity and the autonomy of the Papal State and allow the pope freedom of action in religious affairs. The Carolingian dynasty had filled that role since the time of King pepin iii. However, by the end of the ninth century that family was fast approaching its end.
This emerging chaos was particularly evident in Italy, creating a situation which threatened the very existence of the Papal State. When Formosus became pope, Guido (Guy) of Spoleto—long an antagonist of popes John VIII and Marinus I—had emerged as the leading actor on the Italian scene. Guido was able by force of arms to establish himself as king of Italy and then in 891 to compel Pope stephen v to crown him emperor and his son Lambert king of Italy. His past behavior left no doubt that he would have little respect for the ancient privileges of the Papal State. Guido's ascendancy raised the urge in Rome to seek a more benevolent protector for St. Peter. The leading candidate was Arnulf, king of the East Franks, to whom Pope Stephen V had already made overtures about intervention in Italy.
By the time of the election of Formosus, Guido seemed to be consolidating his position as master of Italy. He compelled Formosus to crown his son Lambert as emperor, assuring Spoletan control of that office. Complaints about his aggression against residents of the Papal State mounted. All of which combined to persuade Formosus in the summer of 893 to renew his predecessor's plea to Arnulf to help St. Peter and his people against "the evil Christians" of Spoleto. Arnulf invaded Italy in late 893, drove Guido out of Pavia, but then returned to his own realm without taking decisive action. Guido died soon after, leaving Lambert as emperor and king of Italy. In response to new papal appeals Arnulf led another expedition into Italy in 895 and marched victoriously to Rome, where he overpowered the Spoletan defenders and took over the city in early 896. Formosus immediately crowned him emperor, but what seemed a papal triumph was fleeting. While leading a campaign against Lambert Arnulf suffered an incapacitating stroke that ended any possibility of his utilizing his imperial office on behalf of the pope and the Papal State.
Shortly after Arnulf's coronation, Formosus died, but his presence on the Roman scene was not yet ended. With Arnulf disabled, Lambert of Spoleto quickly recovered control of Rome. He and his mother, Agiltrude forced Pope stephen vi to convene a synod in 897 to consider the fitness of Formosus for the papal office. The dead pope's body, already buried nine months, was exhumed and placed in full regalia on a throne before the synod. With Pope Stephen VI presiding, a series of charges derived from Formosus' activities throughout most of his past career were addressed to the cadaver whose "responses" were relayed to the assemblage by a terrified deacon standing beside the corpse. At the end of what was later dubbed a horrennda synoda, Formosus' pontificate was declared illegal and all of his acts were declared void, including his ordinations. His body was then stripped of its insignia and vestments and consigned to a common grave from whence it was to be thrown into the Tiber, but it was spared that fate by a hermit who recovered and re-interred it.
This "cadaveric synod" divided Rome and the Papal State into pro-and anti-Formosan parties whose bitter animosity became increasingly violent. As reward for his role in the trial, Pope Stephen was deposed and strangled by the pro-Formosans. Although Pope john ix (898–900) sought to clear the name of Formosus, Pope sergius iii (904–911) revived the decrees of the cadaverous synod, touching off not only a new round of violence but also the pamphlet writing of Auxilius and Eugenius Vulgarius in defense of Formosus. By the time the vicious rivalry over the Formosan issue ended, irreparable damage had been done to the established order in the Papal State. The constant turmoil caused by the rivalry of these factions created a setting that allowed a powerful Roman family, founded by Theophylactus, an official in the papal administration, to seize control of elections to the papal office, to exploit papal resources, and to dominate the governance of Rome and the Papal State during the first half of the tenth century.
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[r. e. sullivan]