DARK  HISTORY  OF  THE  POPES    Vice,  Murder,  corruption  in  the  Vatican

by  Brenda  Ralph  Lewis



The Pope in Rome holds the oldest elected office in the world. In the nearly

2,000 years it has existed, the papacy has helped forge the history of Europe,

and has also reflected both the best and the worst of that history. Several popes

schemed, murdered, bribed, thieved and fornicated, while others committed

atrocities so appalling that even their own contemporaries were shocked.

This was especially true of the darkest days of the papacy's dark history when Christendom was gripped by a hysterical fear of witchcraft or any dissent from the path of 'true' religion as ordained by the popes and the Catholic church. Some of the most heinous crimes ever committed in the name of religion - all of them with papal sanction - occurred during the five centuries or so during which a ferocious struggle raged over Europe to eliminate 'error': any belief, practice or opinion that deviated from the official papal line.

Virtual genocide, for example, eliminated the Cathars, an ascetic sect centred around the southwest of France, who believed that God and the Devil shared the world. In 1231, the first Inquisition was introduced to deal with them. Inquisitors used horrific tortures such as the rack and the thumbscrew to extract confessions. The end was often death in the all-consuming flames of the stake. As well as heretics, thousands of supposed witches, wizards, sorcerers and other 'agents' of the Devil died in the same horrific way.

[The Basilica of St. Peter in the Vatican City constructed between 1506 and 1626, is one of the holiest sites in Christendom. To the east of the basilica is the Piazza di San Pietro, or St. Peter's Square, flanked by 284 Doric columns topped by 140 statues of saints].

In less savage form, the Inquisition caught up with the 17th-century astronomer Galileo Galilei, who was censured for supporting views about the structure of the Universe that were contrary to Church teachings. Galileo believed in that the Earth orbited the Sun, while the Church taught that the Earth was at the centre of the universe. Galileo ended his life as a prisoner in his own house, and some 350 years passed before the Vatican admitted that he had been right all along.

The Vatican had its own, self-imposed prisoners: the five popes who declined to recognise the Kingdom of Italy and for nearly sixty years refused to leave the precincts of the Vatican. Eventually, in 1929, Pius XI realised that isolation was making the papacy an anachronism and signed the Lateran Treaties that enabled it to rejoin the modern world.

Ten years later, in 1939, the extreme dangers of this modern world were brought home to another Pius - Pope Pius XII - who was confronted with the combatants in World War II, both of whom sought papal sanction for their efforts. Pius XII gave his support to neither, but by following his own path made himself a hero and a saviour to some, but a villain, even a criminal, to others.




One thousand years ago and more, political instability was rife in Rome.

At that time, the image of the papacy was everything from outlandish to weird

to downright appalling. All kinds of dark deeds stuck to its name.

Corruption, simony, nepotism and lavish lifestyles were only part of it,

and not necessarily the worst.

During the so-called 'Papal Pornocracy' of the early tenth century, popes were being manipulated, exploited and manoeuvred for nefarious ends by mistresses who used them as pawns in their own power games. With some justification, this era was also called the Rule of the Harlots.

[Benedict IX, one of the most scandalous popes of the 11th century, was described as vile, foul, execrable and a 'demon from Hell in the disguise of a priest'. St Peter's Basilica in Vatican City was by tradition the burial site of St Peter, the first Bishop of Rome and first in the line of papal succession. Here its dome rises above the facade begun in 1605 by the architect Carlo Maderna].


So many popes were assassinated, mutilated, poisoned or otherwise done away with that when one of them disappeared, never to be seen again, it was only natural to scan a list of violent explanations to find out what had happened to him. Death by strangulation in prison was a frequent cause. Had the vanished pope been hideously mutilated and therefore made unfit to appear in public? Had he made off with the papal cash box? Or should the brothels and other houses of ill repute be searched to find out if he was there? Often, there was no clear answer and explanations were left to gossip and rumour.


The variety of violent ends suffered by popes during the Papal Pornocracy was astonishing. For example, in 882 CE one pope, John VIII, failed to die sufficiently quickly from the poison administered to him. His assassins, losing patience, smashed his skull with hammers to move things along. A tenth-century pope, Stephen LX, suffered horrific injuries when his eyes, lips, tongue and hands were removed. Amazingly, the unfortunate man survived, but was never able to show his mutilated face in public again. Pope Benedict V decamped to Constantinople in 964 CE after seducing a young girl, taking the papal treasury with him. Benedict was obviously a free-spending pontiff, for the money ran out before the end of the year and he returned to Rome. He soon resumed his bad old habits but was finally killed by a jealous husband who left more than one hundred stab wounds on his body before throwing him into a cesspit.

Another pope, Boniface VI, was elected to the Throne of St Peter even though he had twice been downgraded for immorality. As so often happens with events that took place sufficiently long ago to gather legends, Boniface either died of gout, or was poisoned or deposed and sent away to allow another pope, Stephen VII, to take his place. Either way, Boniface disappeared from history but he did so with suspicious rapidity: his reign lasted only 15 days. Afterwards, Stephen was let loose on the many powers and privileges of the papacy that he was expected to use

[Pope John VIII was murdered in 882 ce, but only after he had failed to die by poison. Instead, he was battered to death by his killers].

for the benefit of his sponsors, the mighty House of Spoleto in central Italy and its domineering chatelaine, the Duchess Agiltrude, the instigator of the scandalous Cadaver Synod of 897 CE.

One thing was certain, though: by the ninth century, the papacy and the popes were the playthings of noble families like the Spoletans, who controlled cities such as Venice, Milan, Genoa, Pisa, Florence and Siena, among others. Through their wealth and influence, and their connections with armed militias, these families formed what amounted to a feudal aristocracy. They were generally a brutish lot, willing to bring the utmost violence and cruelty to the task of seizing and controlling the most prestigious office in the Christian world. Once achieved, though, their newfound power could be ephemeral, for the reigns of some of their

By the ninth century the papacy

and the popes were the playthings

of noble families.

proteges were very short indeed. There were, for example, 24 popes between 872 CE and 904 CE.The longest reign lasted a decade and another four came and went within a year. There were nine popes in the nine years between 896 CE and 904 CE, as many pontiffs as were elected during the entire twentieth century. This meant, of course, that the papal See of Rome was in a constant state of uproar, as the struggle for the Vatican had to be fought over and over again.


Stephen VII was one of the short-lived popes, promising the House of Spoleto, in central Italy, a taste of papal power that turned out to be a brief 15 months in 896 CE and 897 CE. Stephen was almost certainly insane and his affliction appears to have been common knowledge in Rome. This, though, did not deter the Duchess Agiltrude from foisting him onto the Throne of St Peter in July 896 CE. Agiltrude, it appears, had a special task for Pope Stephen, which involved wreaking revenge on her one-time enemy, the late Pope Formosus. 

Like most, if not all, legendary glamour heroines of history, Agiltrude was reputed to be very beautiful, with a sexy figure and long blonde hair. However that may be, she was certainly a formidable woman with a fearsome taste for retribution. In 894 CE, Agiltrude took her young son, Lambert, to Rome to be confirmed by Pope Formosus as Holy Roman Emperor, or so she expected. She found, though, that the venerable Formosus had ideas of his own. He preferred another claimant, Arnulf of Carinthia, a descendant of Charlemagne, the first of the Holy Roman Emperors. The pope realized that Agiltrude was not going to stand by quietly and watch as her son was displaced, and knowing well the turbulent temper of the Spoletans, he saw trouble coming. So, Formosus appealed to Arnulf for help.

Arnulf, for his part, had no intention of being forced to give way to an underage upstart like Lambert or his implacable mother. He soon arrived with his army, sent Agiltrude packing back to Spoleto and was crowned Holy Roman Emperor by Formosus on 22 February 896 CE.The new emperor at once set out to pursue Agiltrude, but before he could reach Spoleto, he suffered a paralyzing illness, possibly a stroke. Pope Formosus died six weeks later, on 4 April 896 CE, reputedly poisoned by Agiltrude. By all accounts, he had been an admirable pope, well known for his care for the poor, his austere way of life, his chastity and devotion to prayer, all of them admirable Christian virtues - and remarkable - in an age of decadence, self-seeking and barbarism.

But whatever his virtues, Formosus could not entirely escape the poisonous atmosphere of violence and intrigue that permeated the Church in his time. It was all too easy to make enemies and so become exposed to their vengeance and bile. It was also possible that Formosus was too honest and outspoken for his own good. It was, for instance, an unwise move to oppose the election of Pope John VIII in 872 CE, particularly when Formosus himself had been among the candidates. It was bad policy, too, to have friends among Pope John's enemies who were perennially plotting against him. They were so intent on destroying him that they sought help for their nefarious plans from the Muslim Saracens, who were the sworn enemies of Christianity.

This was an age when the enemies of popes had a habit of disappearing or ending up dead. The writing on the wall was easy to read, and when his plotter friends fled from the papal court, Formosus fled with them. This, of course, implied that he was one of the conspirators. As a result, he was charged with some lurid crimes, such as despoiling the cloisters in Rome, and conspiring to destroy the papal see. Formosus was punished accordingly. In 878 CE, he was excommunicated. This sentence was withdrawn, though, when Formosus agreed to sign a declaration stating that he would never return to Rome or perform priestly duties. In addition, the Diocese of Porto, in Portugal, where Formosus had been made Cardinal Bishop in 864 CE, was taken from him.

[Stephen was almost certainly insane and his affliction appears to have been common knowledge in Rome].

[Pope Formosus was rumoured to have been poisoned before his death in 896 ce, but he suffered horrific injuries afterwards, Several of his fingers were cut off and he was beheaded before being thrown into the River Tiber].


Benedict IX was born in around 1012 into a family with plenty of political, military and papal muscle. Two of his uncles preceded him as Pope Benedict VIII and Pope John XIX, and his father, Alberic 111, Count of Tusculum, was influential enough to secure the Throne of St Peter for him when he was around 20 years of age. Needless to say, Benedict was one of the youngest popes ever, and he was highly placed in the dissolute stakes as well. Benedict was described as 'feasting on immorality' and 'a demon from Hell in the disguise of a priest'. He was also accused of 'many vile adulteries and murders'. A later pope, Victor III, charged him with 'rapes, murders and other unspeakable acts'. Benedict's life, Pope Victor continued, was 'so vile, so foul, so execrable that I shudder to think of it'. For good measure, Benedict was also indicted for homosexuality and bestiality.

Benedict's hold over his throne was tenuous. His enemies forced him out of Rome in 1036 and again in 1045, when he sold his office for 680 kilograms of gold to his godfather, John Gratian, the Archpriest of St John Lateran who afterwards became Pope Gregory VI. The payment drained the Vatican treasury so greatly that, for a time, there was not enough money to pay the papal bills.

Having secured his booty, Benedict set off for a life of leisure and pleasure at one of his castles in the country. He had plans to marry, but the lady in question, a second cousin, turned him down. Within a few months, Benedict was back in Rome, attempting to retrieve his throne. He failed and was driven out by infuriated nobles in 1046. Another attempt met the same resistance, and Benedict was finally thrown out in 1048.

In 1049, Benedict was accused of simony, but failed to appear in court to answer the charges. As punishment, he was excommunicated. After that, Benedict more or less disappeared from the records. The exact date of his death remains unknown. It may have taken place in 1056 while he was preparing to launch a renewed attempt at retrieving the papal throne. Another date for Benedict's demise was 1065, when he had seemingly repented of his numerous sins, and died as a penitent at the Abbey of Grottaferrata in the Alban Hills, 20 kilometres (12 miles) southeast of Rome.

[Benedict IX is said to have ended his outrageous life as a humble penitent at the church of Santa Maria di Grottaferrata, a small town in the Alban hills southeast of Rome].

[Pope John VIII (seated) gives a papal blessing to Charles the Bald, King of West Francia in northwestern France after his coronation as Holy Roman Emperor in 875 ce].

Such accusations and penalties

made against an elderly man

of proven probity and

morality were clearly ludicrous

and had all the appearance

of a put-up job.


Such accusations and penalties, made against an elderly man of proven probity and morality were clearly ludicrous and had all the appearance of a put-up job. Fortunately, all was later forgiven. After the death of John VIII in 882 CE, his successor as pope, Marinus I, recalled Formosus to Rome from his refuge in western France, and restored him to his Diocese of Porto. Nine years later, Formosus was himself elected pope and it was during his five-year tenure that he made a very serious mistake: he crossed Duchess Agiltrude and the House of Spoleto. He also made other enemies over his policies as pope, which included trying to eradicate the influence of lay (non-ordained) people in Church affairs.

Quite possibly, this was why the death of one of her enemies and the incapacity of the other were not enough for Agiltrude. She had in mind something much more dramatic and gruesome. Once Formosus' successor as pope, Boniface VI, had gone, the way was clear for Stephen VII, the candidate favoured by Agiltrude and her equally malicious son Lambert, to step up to the plate and do their bidding.


In January 897 CE, Stephen announced that a trial was to take place at the church of St John Lateran, the official church of the pope as Bishop of Rome. The defendant was Pope Formosus, now deceased for nine months, for whom Stephen had developed a fanatical hatred. Stephen was a thoroughly nasty piece of work but the source of his hatred is not precisely known: it is possible that just being a member of the House of Spoleto relentlessly prodded along by the fearsome Agiltrude was enough. Even so, hatred, however obsessive, could not easily explain the horrors that featured in the posthumous trial of Pope Formosus some time in January 897 then nine-months dead. The dead pope was not tried in his absence. At Agiltrude's prompting, Formosus - or rather his

[Pope Stephen VII put on a very dramatic show at the 'trial' of the dead Pope Formosus, whose mouldering corpse was dug up from its grave to play its grisly part in the Cadaver Synod of 897 ce]. 

rotting corpse, which was barely held together by his penitential hair shirt - was removed from his burial place and dressed in papal vestments. He was then carried into the court, where he was propped up on a throne. Stephen sat nearby, presiding over the 'trial' -

[This illustration of Pope Stephen VII interrogating the dead Pope Formosus portrays the corpse of the one-time pontiff in a rather better condition than it would have been in reality: Formosus had died several months previously].

alongside co-judges chosen from the clergy. To ensure they were unfit for the task, and merely did what they were told, several co-judges had been bullied and terrorized and sat out the proceedings in a lather of fear. At the trial, the charges laid against Formosus by Pope John VIII were revived. For good measure, Stephen added fresh accusations designed to prove that Formosus had been unfit for the pontificate: he had committed perjury, Stephen claimed, coveted the Throne of St Peter and violated Church law.

His corpse was stripped of its

vestments and dressed instead in the

clothes of an ordinary layman. The

three fingers of Formosus' right

hand which he had used to make

papal blessings were cut off.



Simony, the crime of selling or paying for church offices or positions or offering payment to influence an appointment, was a serious crime within the Church. It took its name from Simon Magus, also known as Simon the Sorcerer, who attempted to bribe the disciples Peter and John. As the New Testament recounts:

And when Simon saw that through laying on of the apostles' hands the Holy Spirit was given, he offered them money, saying, 'Give me also this power that on whomsoever I lay hands, he may perceive the Holy Ghost' But Peter said unto him, 'Thy money pensh, with (thee,) because thou hast though that the gift of God,may be purchased with money.'


Nepotism derives from the Latin word nepos, meaning nephew or grandchild, and describes the favouritism many popes showed towards their relatives and friends by giving them high positions in the Church they did not merit, either through ability or seniority. It was probably the most common of Church crimes, particularly in medieval times. However, nepotism was almost understandable at a time when popes had personal rivals and enemies and needed people close to them who had already proved their loyalty.


Stephen's behaviour in court was extraordinary. The clergy and other spectators in court were treated to frenzied tirades, as Stephen mocked the dead pope and launched gross insults at him. Formosus had been allowed a form of defence in the form of an 18-year-old deacon. The unfortunate young man was supposed to answer for Formosus, but was too frightened of the raving, screaming Stephen to make much of an impression. Weak, mumbling answers were the most the poor lad could manage.

Inevitably, at the end of the proceedings, which came to be called, appropriately, the Cadaver Synod, Formosus was found guilty on all the charges against

Formosus was buried yet again this

time in an ordinary graveyard.

Like the rescue itself, the burial

had to be kept secret.

him. Punishment followed immediately. Stephen declared that all of the dead pope's acts and ordinations were null and void. At Stephen's command, his corpse was stripped of its vestments and dressed instead in the clothes of an ordinary layman. The three fingers of Formosus' right hand, which he had used to make papal blessings, were cut off. The severed fingers - or rather what was left of them after nine months of decay - were handed over the Agiltrude who had watched the proceedings with open satisfaction. Finally, Pope Stephen ordered that Formosus should be reburied in a common grave. This was done, but there was a grisly sequel. Formosus' corpse was soon dug up, dragged through the streets of Rome, tied with weights and thrown into the River Tiber.

Formosus had been revered by many of the clergy and he was popular with the Romans and, before his election in 891 CE, many had rioted at the prospect of another pope being chosen instead. There was, therefore, no shortage of helpers when a monk who had remained faithful to the dead pope's memory asked a group of fishermen to aid him in retrieving Formosus' much misused remains. Afterwards, Formosus was buried yet again, this time in an ordinary graveyard. Like the rescue itself, the burial had to be kept secret. If Formosus' enemies -particularly Pope Stephen and Agiltrude - had learnt of it, it was likely that the body of the dead pope would have been desecrated yet again.

The Cadaver Synod, known more graphically by its Latin name Synodus Horrenda, prompted uproar and outrage throughout Rome. This was underlined in the superstitious popular mind when the Basilica of St John suddenly fell down with a thunderous roar just as Pope Stephen and Agiltrude emerged from the church of St John Lateran at the end of the 'trial'. The fact that the Basilica had long ago been condemned as unsafe was less convincing than the idea that the collapse was a sign of God's displeasure. Before long, in much the same vein, rumours arose that the corpse of Pope Formosus had 'performed' miracles, an ability normally ascribed only to saints.

The widespread disgust at the savagery of the proceedings, and its ghastly sequel,

Stripped of his splendid papal

vestments and insignia

he was thrown into prison

where he was strangled.

convinced many clergy that if anyone was unfit to be pope it was Stephen VII. An element of self-interest also featured in the wave of hostility aroused by the Synod. Many clergy who had been ordained by Formosus were deprived of their positions when Stephen nullified the dead pope's ordinations.


Hostility soon translated into action. In August 897 CE, eight months after the Cadaver Synod, a 'palace revolution' took place and Stephen VII was deposed. Stripped of his splendid papal vestments and insignia, he was thrown into prison, where he was strangled. This, though, was by no means the end of the days when the popes and the papacy were mired in disgrace. For one thing, Agiltrude was still around and active and, wherever she was, there was bound to be trouble. Agiltrude was enraged at the murder of her protege Pope Stephen and moved in fast to

[Theodore II reigned as pope for only twenty days, but that was long enough for him to restore the good name of his much abused predecessor, Formosus].

restore the influence that had been killed off with him. But she had no luck with the new pope, Romanus, who was placed on the papal throne in 897 CE but remained there for only three months. Romanus, it appears, fell foul of one of the factions at the papal court that was opposed to Agiltrude and the House of Spoleto. Afterwards, the hapless former pope was 'made a monk' an early medieval European euphemism that meant he had been deposed.


Romanus's successor, Pope Theodore II, was even less fortunate, but at least he lasted long enough to do right by the much-abused Formosus. Theodore ordered the body of the late pope reburied clad in pontifical vestments and with full honours in St Peter's in Rome. He also annulled the court where the Cadaver Synod had taken place and invalidated its verdicts and decisions. Much to the relief of the clergy dispossessed by Stephen VII, Theodore declared valid once again

Sergius ... had Formosus' corpse

beheaded and cut off three more

of his fingers before consigning

him to the River Tiber

once more.

the offices they had once received from Formosus. It was as if the Cadaver Synod and the lunatic Pope Stephen had never existed. Unfortunately, however, it brought Theodore few, if any, rewards. His reign lasted only 20 days in November 897 CE, after which he mysteriously died. The following year, however, future trials of dead persons were prohibited by Theodore's successor. Pope John IX.

Ten years later, Sergius III, who was elected pope in 904 ce, dug up Pope Formosus and put him on trial

Not long afterwards,

Formosus' headless corpse surfaced

again when it became entangled

in a fisherman's net.

all over again. Sergius, then a cardinal, had been a co-judge at the Cadaver Synod in 897 CE and became infuriated when the guilty verdict was overturned. This time, Sergius restored the guilty judgement and added some ghoulish touches of his own. He had Formosus' corpse beheaded and cut off three more of his fingers before consigning him to the River Tiber once more. To emphasize his message, Sergius ordered a flattering epitaph for Stephen VII be inscribed on his tomb.

Not long afterwards, Formosus' headless corpse surfaced again when it became entangled in a fisherman's net. Retrieved from the Tiber for a second time, Formosus was returned once more to St Peter's church. Sergius had, of course, contravened the prohibition on posthumous trials declared by John IX so his actions were essentially invalid. Nevertheless, a public statement of Formosus' innocence had to be made and both he and his work were formally reinstated yet again.

The chief instigator of the original Cadaver Synod, Agiltrude, was still alive when Formosus was exonerated for a second time but her position - and her power - had radically altered because, through the extraordinary antics of Stephen VII, she had triumphed over the dead pope in 896 CE. But she had a weakness. Agiltrude's power, while considerable, was essentially second-hand, relying on puppets like Pope Stephen who could be manoeuvred into the positions she wanted them to occupy and from there implement her policies. Also important in Agiltrude's armoury were certain family relationships that gave her the high status she enjoyed from the positions occupied by her husband, Guy of Spoleto, and after him, by their son, Lambert. When Guy died on 12 December 894 CE, Agiltrude instantly lost her standing as Duchess of Spoleto and Camerino, Queen of Italy and Holy Roman Empress. There was still some kudos to be had from Lambert's elevation to all these titles, but he died before his mother in 898 CE and Agiltrude's last family link with power disappeared.

Agiltrude died in 923 CE, but by that time two other women had discovered another way into the corridors of papal power in Rome. They were Theodora and her daughter Marozia, both of them the mistresses of popes. Theodora was described as a 'shameless strumpet' and her two daughters, Marozia and the younger Theodora as possessing reputations not 'much better... than their mother'.

Neither the elder Theodora nor Marozia halted the rapid turnover that had become a regular feature of the papacy. If anything they exacerbated it. In the first years of the tenth century, short pontificates of a year or less persisted, and so did the violent deaths of

Short pontificates of a year

or less persisted, and so

did the violent deaths of popes

that reflected the ongoing

struggle for power.

popes that reflected the ongoing struggle for power. Others managed to survive for a year or two but rarely much more. In fact, popes succeeded one another with such rapidity that papal servants made a handsome profit selling off their personal accoutrements and furnishings.


Sergitis III was once described as the source of 'infinite abominations amongst light women' and 'the slave of every vice and the most wicked of men'. His personal as well as his public life as pope was said to be one long procession of scandal and decadence, which included the murder of one, and possibly two popes. It appears that Sergius ordered the murders of both Pope Leo V and the antipope Christopher who were strangled in prison in 904 CE. That done, the way was clear for Sergius to become pope himself. Three years later, Pope Sergius acquired a mistress, Marozia, whose mother, Theodora, 'gave' her to him when she was only 15 years old. Sergius was 30 years Marozia's senior, but it seems he had lusted after Marozia for nine years, ever since they met at the notorious Cadaver Synod of 897 CE. Even from an early age, Marozia had possessed a strong sexual attraction and although she was by no means Sergius' only lover, he never forgot her. Sergius and Marozia had a son, who became John XI, so making Sergius the only pope on record as the father of another pope. As for Marozia, her four-year affair with Pope Sergius, who died in 911 CE, seems to have given her a taste for papal power and the pursuit of pope-making. 

The critics of scandalous popes heaped virtually every pejorative they knew on Sergius III and his decadent lifestyle.






Keith Hunt