The pontificate of this pope belongs to that era of strife for political supremacy in Italy, which succeeded the disruption of the Carlovingian empire. Formosus was probably a native of Rome, and must have been born about 816, since, at his death, he is characterized by Vulgarius as an old man of eighty. The earliest historical information we possess concerning him is his nomination by Nicholas I as Cardinal-Bishop of Porto in 864. Nicholas must have reposed great confidence in the zeal and ability of the cardinal, since, when the Bulgarian prince Bogoris dispatched an embassy to Rome in 866 to submit a series of questions for papal decision, the pope appointed Formosus and Bishop Paulus of Populonia as his legates to Bulgaria. Formosus found such favour at the Bulgarian court that Bogoris petitioned Nicholas in 867 to appoint none other than him Archbishop of Bulgaria. To this proposal, however, Nicholas did not accede, since the canons forbade a bishop to leave his own see to undertake the government of another diocese, and Formosus returned to Rome. Bogoris afterwards renewed his petition to Hadrian II (867-872), the successor of Nicholas, but with no more favourable result. In 869, Hadrian sent Formosus with another bishop to France to assist the local bishops in allaying the domestic strife between King Lothair and his wife Theutberga. Although the death of Lothair on his return from Italy (8 Aug., 869) left the mission without an object, it gave rise to fresh complications among the Carlovingian rulers, and Formosus was sent with Bishop Gauderich of Velletri to Trent in 872, where Empress Engelberga and Louis the German were discussing the question of succession, Louis II having no male heir. At first Pope John VIII (872-882) reposed trust in Formosus, and, on the death of Louis II (875), employed him with two other bishops to convey his invitation to Charles the Bald, King of France, to come to Rome and receive the imperial crown from the hands of the pope. Charles obeyed the call, was crowned emperor on Christmas Day, 875, and before returning home, appointed Dukes Lambert and Guido of Spoleto to assist the pope against the Saracens. In 871, these nobles had been deprived of their dignities for conspiring against Louis II; but they were restored by Charles.
In the pope's entourage there were many who viewed with disapproval the coronation of Charles, and favoured the widowed Empress Engelberga and Louis the German. Fearing severe chastisement, these political opponents of the pope left Rome secretly to seek safety elsewhere. Cardinal Formosus was among the fugitives, as he dreaded the anger of the pope without knowing exactly whereby he had incurred the papal resentment. From the fact that Formosus had been sent by the pope as ambassador to Charles and now directed his flight to Abbot Hugo at Tours in Western France, it must be inferred that he was not fundamentally opposed to the coronation of Charles. He cannot, however, have been in sympathy with the pope's political views, and consequently feared lest he might share the fate of John's opponents at the papal court. As early as 872 he had been a candidate for the papal see, so that John possibly viewed him in the light of an opponent. On the flight of Formosus and the other papal officials, John convened a synod, 19 April, which ordered the fugitives to return to Rome. As they refused to obey this injunction, they were condemned by a second synod on 30 June. Against Formosus, should he fail to return, sentence of excommunication and deposition were pronounced by the first synod, the charges being that, impelled by ambition, he had aspired to the Archbishopric of Bulgaria and the Chair of Peter, had opposed the emperor and had deserted his diocese without papal permission. It follows from this that John saw in Formosus a rival whom he gravely suspected. The second synod of 30 June, after several new accusations had been brought against Formosus (e.g. that he had despoiled the cloisters in Rome, had performed the divine service in spite of the interdict, had conspired with certain iniquitous men and women for the destruction of the papal see ), excluded him from the ranks of the clergy. Such charges, made against a man who was religious, moral, ascetic, and intellectual can only be referred to party spirit.
The condemnation of Formosus and the others was announced to the emperor and the Synod of Ponthion in July. In 878 John himself came to France, and the deposition of Formosus, who appeared in person, was confirmed at the synod of Troyes. According to the acts of the synod, which are however of doubtful authenticity, the sentence of excommunication against Formosus was withdrawn, after he had promised on oath never to return to Rome or exercise his priestly functions. The succeeding years were spent by Formosus at Sens. John's successor Marinus (882-884) released Formosus from his oath, recalled him to Rome, and in 883 restored him to his Diocese of Porto. During the short pontificates of Marinus and his successor Hadrian III (884-885), and under Stephen V (885-891), we learn nothing important concerning Formosus. In September, 891, he was elected to succeed Stephen. Under Stephen V the political horizon had become very threatening. Charles the Fat had reunited the Frankish kingdom in 885, but after his deposition and death in 887, Arnulf of Carinthia, the natural son of Karlmann and the nominee of the Germans, was unable to preserve its unity. In the western kingdom, Count Eudes of Paris Came forward as king; in Provence (Arelate), Louis, son of Boso ; in North Burgundy (Jura), Rudolf, son of the Count of Auxerre and grandson of Louis the Pious; in Italy, Berengar of Friaul. The last-mentioned was opposed and defeated by Duke Guido (Wido) of Spoleto, who thereupon took possession of Lombardy, and assumed the title of king. Ruling now over the greater portion of Italy, Guido was a very dangerous neighbour for the papal states, especially as the Archdukes of Spoleto had been on many occasions engaged in conflict with the popes. Stephen V had unwillingly crowned Guido emperor, as King Arnulf had been unable to accept the pope's invitation to come to Rome. Consequently Formosus, after he had been unanimously elected pope by clergy and people, found himself compelled to recognize Guido's dignity and to crown him and his son Lambert Roman Emperor on April, 892. Important ecclesiastical questions claimed the pope's attention immediately after his elevation. In Constantinople, the patriarch Photius had been ejected and Stephen, the son of Emperor Basilius, elevated to the patriarchate. Archbishop Stylian of Neo-Cæsarea and the clerical opponents of Photius had written to Stephen V, requesting dispensation and confirmation for those clerics who had recognized Photius only under compulsion and had received orders at his hands. In his reply to this petition (892) Formosus insisted on a distinction of persons ; indulgence might be readily shown in the case of the laity, but in the case of clerics such a course was attended with difficulties; the rule must be the sentence of the Eighth General Council (Can. iv), viz, that Photius neither had been nor was a bishop, and all clerics ordained or appointed by him must resign their office; the papal legates, Landulf and Romanus, were to consult with Stylian and Theophylactus of Ancyra on the matter. In this instance, Formosus only corroborated the decisions of his predecessors, Nicholas I and Hadrian II.
A matter of a pressing character, affecting the Church in Germany, next called for the papal decision. A quarrel had broken out between Archbishop Hermann of Cologne and Archbishop Adalgar of Hamburg concerning the Bishopric of Bremen, which Hermann claimed as suffragan. Formosus decided, in accordance with the decrees of the Synod of Frankfort (892), that Bremen should remain under the Archbishop of Hamburg until new dioceses were erected; Adalgar was to repair to the provincial synod of the Archbishop of Cologne. Formosus viewed with sorrow the political troubles that disturbed the old Frankish kingdom of the Carlovingian dynasty. In the contest between Udes (Odo) of Paris and Charles the Simple for the French crown, the pope, influenced by the Archbishop of Reims, sided with Charles and called on Arnold, the German king, to support him. The political position in Italy directly affected the pope as head of the ecclesiastical estates, and consequently his independence as head of the Church. Emperor Guido of Spoleto, the oppressor of the Holy See and the papal territories, was too near Rome ; and the position of the papacy seemed very similar to its condition in the time of the Lombard kingdom, when Stephen II summoned Pepin to his assistance. Formosus secretly persuaded Arnulf to advance to Rome and liberate Italy ; and, in 894, Arnulf made his first expedition, subjugating all the country north of the Po. Guido died in December of the same year, leaving his son Lambert, whom Formosus had crowned emperor, in the Care of his mother Agiltrude, the implacable opponent of the Carlovingians. In the autumn of 895 Arnulf undertook his second Italian campaign, and in February, 896, stood before the walls of Rome. Agiltrude had fortified herself in the city, but Arnulf succeeded in entering and was solemnly crowned by the pope. The new emperor thence marched against Spoleto to besiege Lambert and his mother, but was struck with paralysis on the way and was unable to continue the campaign.. Shortly afterwards (4 April, 896) Formosus died. He was succeeded by Boniface VI, who reigned only fifteen days.
Under Stephen VI, the successor of Boniface, Emperor Lambert and Agiltrude recovered their authority in Rome at the beginning of 897, having renounced their claims to the greater part of Upper and Central Italy. Agiltrude being determined to wreak vengeance on her opponent even after his death, Stephen VI lent himself to the revolting scene of sitting in judgment on his predecessor, Formosus. At the synod convened for that purpose, he occupied the chair; the corpse, clad in papal vestments, was withdrawn from the sarcophagus and seated on a throne; close by stood a deacon to answer in its name, all the old charges formulated against Formosus under John VIII being revived. The decision was that the deceased had been unworthy of the pontificate, which he could not have validly received since he was bishop of another see. All his measures and acts were annulled, and all the orders conferred by him were declared invalid. The papal vestments were torn from his body; the three fingers which the dead pope had used in consecrations were severed from his right hand; the corpse was cast into a grave in the cemetery for strangers, to be removed after a few days and consigned to the Tiber. In 897 the second successor of Stephen had the body, which a monk had drawn from the Tiber, reinterred with full honours in St. Peter's. He furthermore annulled at a synod the decisions of the court of Stephen VI, and declared all orders conferred by Formosus valid. John IX confirmed these acts at two synods, of which the first was held at Rome and the other at Ravenna (898). On the other hand Sergius III (904-911) approved in a Roman synod the decisions of Stephen's synod against Formosus; all who had received orders from the latter were to be treated as lay persons, unless they sought reordination. Sergius and his party meted out severe treatment to the bishops consecrated by Formosus, who in turn had meanwhile conferred orders on many other clerics, a policy which gave rise to the greatest confusion. Against these decisions many books were written, which demonstrated the validity of the consecration of Formosus and of the orders conferred by him (see AUXILIUS).
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