The Cadaver Synod: when the Catholic Church dug up a dead pope to put his corpse on trial

Cadaver Synod Pope skeleton
© History Skills

The Cadaver Synod is one of the most macabre and bizarre events in the history of the Catholic Church. Picture this: a courtroom filled with bishops, priests, and deacons all gathered around a corpse dressed in full papal regalia, propped up on a throne.


This wasn't a scene from a horror movie, but a real-life trial that took place in Rome in the late 9th century.


Pope Stephen VI had ordered the exhumation of his predecessor, Pope Formosus, so that his corpse could stand trial for various charges. 


Why did this happen and what was the outcome of the court case?

What was the 'Cadaver Synod'?

The Cadaver Synod, also known as the Synod Horrenda or the Synod of the Dead, was a dark chapter in the history of the Catholic Church.


The event occurred in the late 9th century, during a time when the Church was facing a power struggle between the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor.


The Cadaver Synod was held in January of 897 CE in the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome.


The synod was convened by Pope Stephen VI, who had recently taken the papal throne.


His predecessor, Pope Formosus, had died just a few months earlier, and Stephen VI was determined to exact revenge on his deceased rival.

Why did Stephen want revenge?

Pope Stephen VI ordered the Cadaver Synod as a means of posthumously punishing Pope Formosus for what he believed were various offenses against the Church.


In particular, Stephen VI was angry that Formosus had crowned the Holy Roman Emperor, Arnulf of Carinthia, without his approval.


Stephen VI believed that this was a violation of Church law and an encroachment on his own authority.


Additionally, Stephen VI accused Formosus of perjury, since he had allegedly violated Church law by being a bishop in two different dioceses at the same time.


Finally, Stephen VI was likely motivated by a desire to legitimize his own claim to the papacy, which was disputed by some members of the clergy who supported Formosus.


By staging this bizarre trial and posthumously convicting Formosus of various crimes, Stephen VI sought to cement his own power and undermine the legacy of his predecessor.

The macabre trial of the corpse

The preparation for the Cadaver Synod was a highly unusual affair. Pope Stephen VI enlisted a group of his supporters, who were willing to go to any lengths to ensure that Formosus was posthumously punished.


They exhumed Formosus' corpse, which had been buried in St. Peter's Basilica, and dressed it in papal vestments.


The corpse was then brought to the courtroom, where Stephen VI presided over the trial.


The trial was a complete sham, with Stephen VI acting as prosecutor and judge, and Formosus was found guilty on all charges.


It is said that Stephen VI even had a deacon stand next to the corpse, speaking on its behalf in a macabre parody of a real trial.


The entire trial was a bizarre and grotesque spectacle, designed to humiliate Formosus and legitimize Stephen VI's own claim to the papacy.

What happened to the body of the former pope?

After the Cadaver Synod, the body of Pope Formosus was subjected to a gruesome and macabre fate.


As punishment for his alleged crimes, Formosus' corpse was stripped of its papal vestments and had three fingers on its right hand amputated - the fingers that Formosus had used to bless people.


The body was then thrown into the Tiber River, where it was later retrieved by monks who buried it in a common grave.


The desecration of Formosus' body was widely condemned by the Catholic Church and caused outrage among the clergy and the general public. 

How did the church respond?

The trial was a clear abuse of power by Pope Stephen VI, who used the trial as a means of punishing his predecessor, Pope Formosus, and consolidating his own power within the Church.


The desecration of Formosus' body was an egregious violation of the dignity of the papal office and the basic principles of Christian charity and respect for the dead.


The scandal of the Cadaver Synod caused a great deal of controversy and undermined the moral authority of the Catholic Church.


However, the event also served as a catalyst for reforms within the Church, particularly in the areas of papal succession and the conduct of trials.