In researching my historical thriller (in process), I’ve found a ton of great info, but some of it is bat shit crazy. If anyone ever accuses my story of being a little over the top, I just get to point to stuff like this and say, OOHHH REEEAALLY? I’M THE ONE WHO IS OVER THE TOP!?
Today I read about Pope Stephen VI, who reigned over the Holy See from 896-97. When he ascended, he had a previous Pope, Formosus, put on trial. This is the story of that trial and how it came to be.
Let’s pause there and mention that Formosus in Latin means “handsome”. Think about it, this guy gets elected to the Papacy in 891, and the Curia asks him, “Hey guy, what would you like your Papal moniker to be? John seems popular. Pius really hits the mark. How about Constantine? That’s a badass name, and Keanu Reeves won’t ruin it for over a thousand years.” And this guy says, “Hmmm, I think I’ll be Pope Handsome.” But I’d like to think the connotation was more like, hey, I’m Pope Sexy. Even if my interpretation is wrong, I think we can all agree he was onto something.
Ladies? Any takers?
On second thought, no. Maybe this guy was perhaps overcompensating a little. Like if I were made Pope and decided to name myself Pope Six-pack Abs. Which, come to think of it, I do have a solid way of pulling off sans beaucoup d’effort if I’m ever elected.
If it’s been a while since you’ve seen this one, or if you’ve never heard of Strong Bad from Homestarrunner.com, then go do yourself a favor and check this video out.
Our particular story with Pope Formosus begins upon his ordination, when he starts meddling in European politics. He had a real beef with The Holy Roman Emperor. We’ll call him Guy Spoletto, because that was his name. It’s pronounced Gee, like a French Canadian hockey player or Indian clarified butter. So, Guy the Emperor is really tweaking Formosus’ nips. At the time, he controlled what we now call Central Europe, give or take a Slovakia. And he had only recently won the crown. His family had been fighting their way to the top for a long time, and had done the Papacy dirty on numerous occasions. To top off the sense of distrust and anger Pope Formosus already had toward him, Guy forces Formosus to crown his son the King of Italy. And Formosus is all, “Ain’t no one got time for another generation of Spolettos clowning on the Papacy.”
So Formosus calls his old buddy Arnulf to his aid. I like to think their communications went something like this:
Formosus: Sup Arnie. U wants 2 come be Emperor? I’ll letchu if you come down to Rome and like liberate us and stuff from this Guy guy.
Arnulf: Lemme just finish up killing these Slavs, and I’m there with bells on.
So Arnulf comes to Italy with an Army, then he decides, “Nah, Ima chill back here in Carinthia and let my son go put a beatdown on Guy Spoletto.” So, his illegitimate son, named, I kid you not, Zwentibold, heads south with an army, meets up with an ally and lays a beating on Guy’s forces. A little money changes hands and Zwentibold, apparently not having received the memo on why he was sent to Italy, heads back home north of the Alps feeling pretty good about life.
So Arnulf realizes, crap, I guess if I want this done right, I better saddle up and do things myself. He invades like a boss and wins a few battles. He famously hangs Guy’s mayor of Bergamo from a tree. Message sent? Oh yeah. Get ready Rome. Daddy Arnulf’s coming for you.
Except…meh maybe not. Guy dies suddenly. And fever is running through Arnulf’s army. So, he crowns himself King of Italy and calls it a day. He heads back home through the Alps. Except here he is met with a foe by the name of Rudolph, King of Burgundy. This game of Alpine chicken enrages Arnulf. He finally gets home and tells Zwentibold to go pull Burgundy down to the studs. Zentibold obliges and lays absolute waste to Burgundy (which at this time is further south in Eastern France than it is today).
Meanwhile, Guy’s widowed wife, Ageltrude, takes her son Lambert to Rome, thinking with the support of friendly families in the senate and church that she can force old Sexy Pope, Formosus, to crown her son king. But old Formosus has a different idea. He locks himself in a prison and says, “Nope, Can’t make me crown him. Neener neener.” He’s just gonna wait this out until Arnulf can come save him and be crowned king. (He would not be the last Pope to take this approach. Alexander VI, the Borgia Pope, also did this to hide from the French King.)
Arnulf tries again to invade Italy and this time takes a methodical approach. He spends six months winning victories and the support of northern nobles. He gets to Rome and finds it controlled by Ageltrude’s forces. This family feud at this point isn’t going to end peacefully. Arnulf storms the city and takes it by force. He liberates Pope Formosus who then crowns him Holy Roman Emperor the next day.
Arnulf heads to Spoletto, the center of the Spoletto family’s power and takes that city. But before he can stomp out all of the Spoletto power, he has a stroke that paralyses him and has to return home. He spent the last years of his life basically dying of crazy diseases like one where he had lice living under his eyelids. UNDER HIS EYELIDS!!! Basically, once he left Italy, he had no power whatsoever there and Lambert Spoletto still tried to gain power.
To make matters worse, Formosus dies like six weeks after Arnulf liberates the city. The next pope dies after like 15 days. Totes not suspiciously, though. The next pope after that names himself Stephen, after the Pope who originally crowned Guy of Spoletto. Can you guess whose side he’s taking here? So he invites Lambert to Rome and crowns him Holy Roman Emperor. We could stop there, and this would be a perfectly ridiculous, crazy story, but no, Pope Stephen had to go and make it weirder….like waaaaaay weirder.
In order to delegitimize Arnulf’s or Zwentibold’s claims on the throne of Italy or the Holy Roman Empire, he decides to put Formosus on trial for a bunch of trumped up charges, including not following technical canonical procedures. Which, if you’re at all familiar with some of the antics and debauchery of certain medieval popes to this point, sounds like a pretty ridiculous thing to be charged with. Pope Stephen doesn’t just want to put on a sham trial and look like crazy, crotchety old Clint Eastwood talking-to an empty chair. That would be too damn weird, right? So the only logical course of action is to dig up Formosus, put his decaying remains in papal vestment and place him on the throne for his trial.
Sound pretty unbelievable?
Oh yeah, Da Vinci? Well, how ’bout these apples?
When Formosus is asked questions by the prosecution, like “Why did you usurp the Papal Throne?” a monk crouched behind the throne would say things in his fair defense, like “Because I’m an evil scumbag.” Seems legit, right? Well wouldn’t you know, Formosus is found guilty. *GASP* Now here we have a dilemma. If they cut his head off, and he’s already dead, might that be like a double negative and bring him back to life? Like some kind of Zombie? And let’s face it, that zombie would have some scores to settle. So, Stephen VI and his cronies decide to just cut off his three fingers used in blessings. Then, because they didn’t have any more creative ideas for Formosus’ corpse, they unceremoniously threw it in the Tiber. Now for visualization purposes, imagine all the mighty rivers that flow through Europe’s capitals, the Danube, the Rhine, The Seine, The Thames. Now think of a muddy slurry roughly the breadth of your living room. That’s the Tiber. Pretty disappointing. And if my corpse is ever flung into a river, let me just say, the Tiber doesn’t even crack the top twenty preferred rivers. For the record, my number one choice would be the Monongahela. But that is a long story for a different day.
A monk later fishes the body out of the river and reburies it. Decades later, after cooler heads prevail, he is reburied in St. Peter’s Basilica.
Formosus’ trial seems like a huge success for Stephen and the Pro-Lambert Spoletto faction. However, it quickly throws church governance into chaos. All of Formosus’ decrees are rendered null, as are all of his appointees and consecrations. They tried to erase his entire papacy as illegitemate. However, imagine if your local bishop was appointed by Formosus. Is he just some nobody now? Is he still a priest, but not a bishop? Who then is in charge here? What do I do with my hands? To make it even worse, all the priests and monks that bishop consecrated and all the rules he established for his bishopric are null too. But who can recall which were which? Confusion ensues on a massive scale.
By now you must also have some idea of the level of infighting and treachery that went on at all levels. So potential ascendants to lucrative church offices used these opportunities to try and unseat their rivals, making the Church even more volatile. All while there is a ton of confusion about who is a priest, a bishop and what rules to follow or not follow. Finally, because things devolved into such a clusterfarce for years, the Church capitulates and re-approves all of Formosus’ bishops. Later generations also re-approved his decrees.
History, man… That shit just isn’t realistic. Seriously. Take out the dragons and Others in Game of Thrones and you can see a fairly tame story of intrigue compared to some of history’s tales. Well, what is there to do now but look at this picture of Marylin Manson without makeup?
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