Pope Stephen VI was born at an unknown date in Rome, Italy. The son of a priest named John, Stephen’s future with the church was decided at birth. As the future pope got older, he became a member of the clergy. Pope Formosus consecrated Stephen as the Bishop of Anagni at some point, although it is debated whether he wanted this position or not.
During the 890s, multiple factions vied for control of Rome by electing their candidates to the papacy. To make matters more chaotic, successive popes did not share the same political goals, causing further infighting to occur. An example of this was the crowning of the next Holy Roman Emperor. During Pope Stephen V’s reign, he supported the crowning of Guy, Duke of Spoleto, in 891. After Stephen’s death, Pope Formosus decided to make Guy’s son, Lambert, his co-emperor. However, in 896, Formosus reversed his predecessor’s pro-Spoletan policy and instead crowned the East Frankish King, Arnulf.
Feeling betrayed by the pope’s decision, the Spoletan faction sought revenge. However, Formosus would die on April 4, 896, robbing the Spoletans of their vengeance. Instead, the faction decided to overthrow the pope’s successor, Boniface VI. After a 15-day reign, the Spoletans deposed Boniface, and elected Stephen in his place. With their candidate now Pope Stephen VI, the Spoletans felt confident that they had finally regained control of Rome.
The Cadaver Synod
At the direction of Emperor Lambert and the Spoletans, Stephen VI ordered that Formosus be tried. Despite his passing, the Spoletan faction’s hatred was so great towards Formosus that Stephen had the former pope disinterred. In January 897, the trial of Formosus began. Known as the Cadaver Synod, the clergy treated Formosus’s rotting corpse as if it were still alive and had it placed on the papal throne. Accused of transferring episcopal sees and falsely crowning another emperor, the clergy found the pope’s corpse guilty.
To appease his supporters, Pope Stephen VI denounced Formosus’ papacy and voided his judgments. One such annulment included voiding Stephen’s transfer from Anagni to Rome, which strengthened the pope’s credibility. As a final act of spite towards Formosus, Stephen ordered his followers to drag the pope’s corpse through the streets and dump it in the Tiber River. After having two of the former pope’s right fingers removed, Formosus would be stripped of his papal clothing as a lasting insult.
Shortly after the conclusion of the Cadaver Synod, a revolt by Formosus supporters removed Pope Stephen VI from office. Stripped of the papal insignia, Stephen’s enemies imprisoned and sentenced the pope to death. In August 897, the pope died from strangulation. Unfazed by the loss of Stephen, the Spoletans quickly elected a new pope, Sergius III. The new pope would continue the legacy of terror begun by Stephen.
Pope Stephen VI oversaw a heinous event in Catholic church history. Despite being a Spoletan puppet, Stephen willingly allowed the desecration of a former pope’s corpse during a sham trial. Ironically, the hatred and disrespect shown towards Formosus shifted towards Stephen. Upon his death, the Spoletan faction discarded Stephen as the pope had done to Formosus.
Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. (n.d.-b). Stephen VI (or VII). Encyclopædia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Stephen-VI-or-VII
Pope Stephen (VI) VII. CATHOLIC ENCYCLOPEDIA: Pope Stephen (VI) VII. (n.d.). https://www.newadvent.org/cathen/14289d.htm
Pope Stephen VI. PopeHistory.com. (2021, October 15). https://popehistory.com/popes/pope-stephen-vi/