Sylvester III, Pope

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Pontificate: Jan. 10 to March 1045; b. John of Sabina, birthdate unknown; d. before 1063. In September 1044, an opposition party drove the last Tusculan pope, benedict ix, from Rome. With Benedict gone and after what appears to have been some bitter infighting, the Stephanian branch of the Crescentian family managed to have their local bishop, John of Sabina, elected pope. John took the title of Sylvester III, but his reign was short lived. After a little more than one month had elapsed, Benedict returned to Rome and reclaimed his throne. Never having been deposed officially, Benedict worked quickly to undermine Sylvester's authority and was able to excommunicate him. Yet Benedict himself did not remain pope for long. Perhaps realizing that his own position was untenable, Benedict IX sold the papal office by May 1045 for an inordinate sum of money to John Gratian, who assumed the title Pope Gregory VI. His action may not have constituted simony in the strict sense. He may have been trying to induce Benedict's abdication rather than buying the office outright. But whatever the truth may be, John was permitted to assume the name Gregory VI only after Benedict received a pension.

Sylvester III did not bother to challenge the validity of the new pope. Rather, he appears to have recognized Gregory's legitimacy and returned to his bishopric in Sabina, where his Crescentian ties enabled him to carry out his episcopal duties. Emperor Henry III, however, was not convinced of Gregory's right to the papacy, and in 1046 he ordered Benedict, Sylvester, and Gregory to appear before a synod that was held at Sutri, where all three were deposed. Sylvester himself was condemned as an invader of the Holy See and was sentenced to confinement in a monastery. But since records indicate that he continued to serve as the Bishop of Sabina until at least 1062, the sentence against him was probably never enforced. Most likely Sylvester III died sometime before 1063, and his right to be recognized as a pope is questionable, although he is listed as one in the Annuario Pontificio 2001.

Bibliography: g. barraclough, The Medieval Papacy (New York 1968) 71. j. n. d. kelly, Oxford Dictionary of Popes (Oxford 1986) 144; f. x. seppelt, Geschichte der Päpste, 2 (Munich 1955) 414417.

[j. a. sheppard]