Saeculum obscurum. That’s Latin for “The Dark Age” and it’s the name historians have given to the time of the 10th century Papacy. Pope Leo V marks the beginning of the dark age,but it is through no fault of his own. Leo was in office for maybe 30 days when Cardinal Christopher declared a Holy coup and took the Chair of Peter for his own. Pope Christopher tossed Leo into prison,but Leo never relinquished his position so Christoper would be forever relegated to Anti-Pope status. This was all for naught anyway because Sergius III arrived back on the scene soon and had Anti-Pope Christopher thrown into prison along with poor Pope Leo V. Sergius was elected Pope back in 898 but was driven out of Rome by Emperor Lambert in favor of Pope John IX. Sergius laid in wait for his moment and with the help of the new Roman military commander,Theophylact I,Count of Tusculum,took back the Vatican with force. Pope Sergius’ first order of business was having Anti-Pope Christopher and Pope Leo V strangled in their prison cells,and with that,the reign of one of the worst Popes ever would begin. I can tell already that these Dark Age Popes are going to give me a headache…..(you can never say that Catholic history is boring though)
Pope Formosus was a brilliant diplomat,a gifted missionary and a Pope beloved by his people,but sadly,his legacy is forever tarnished by the vicious and morbid actions of one of his successors and a vindictive emperor. Holy Roman Emperor Guy III of Spoleto demanded that his son,Lambert,be crowned by the Pope to be King of Italy and co-emperor. Pope Formosus did not trust Lambert and secretly plotted to have him overthrown,which he nearly succeeded in doing before passing away due to a stroke. King Lambert and his mother were nearly driven out of Italy by the Pope’s actions and now that he was dead,they decided to take their revenge,whether he was alive or not. The King plotted with Pope Stephen VI(who may have actually been insane)to dig up the corpse of Formosus and humiliate his memory by putting his dead body on trial for supposed “crimes” against The Holy Church. The rotting body of Formosus(he had been dead for a year)was dressed in Papal vestments and placed on his throne while Pope Stephen screamed questions and vulgarities at his body. To “defend” himself against the charges,a Deacon crouched behind Formosus and answered for him. This disturbing scene played out by Formosus being found guilty(Shocking verdict….)The dead Pope’s vestments were then stripped from him and then three fingers of his blessing hand were cut off. His dismembered body was then dragged outside and thrown into the Tiber River. A monk secretly fished his body out of the river and hid it until this insanity calmed down. Lay Romans and clergy were horrified at all of this and rebelled against Pope Stephen VI. He was thrown into prison where he was later strangled. King Lambert was assassinated two years later. It helps to know that Romans were as disgusted by all of this then, just as much as I was when I first read about this. When the dust cleared and saner heads returned to power,Pope Theodore II had Pope Formosus buried in St Peter’s Basilica with full honors due to this fine Pope.
The birth of the Papal States and the Pope’s new control over much of Italy led to one of the bloodiest Papal elections in history. Nobles of the sections of Italy now controlled by Rome wanted their own guy in office to better serve their personal interests. Duke Toto of Nepi wanted his brother Constantine to become Pope,so he marched an army into Rome and took the Papacy by force. No election was held and Constantine wasn’t even a priest when he began his brief reign as Anti-Pope in 767,while the clergy secretly plotted his doom. Some members of the clergy swore they would not recognize this new “pope” and begged to be let out of the city so they could retire to distant monasteries. Constantine II could care less so he let them leave. This was not his smartest decision. They didn’t go to a monastery,they ran straight to the king of the Lomards and begged him to come get rid of this fake Pope. Always looking for an angle to exploit against Rome for a later date,the king more than happily obliged. He marched his army into Rome,killed Duke Toto and his supporters and then had the Anti-Pope arrested. While this was going on,another fake pope named Phillip was put into place briefly by the Lombard king. Two Anti-Popes later,we finally get to a point when the Church can hold a real election and Stephen III was chosen as our new Pope. Stephen III was a respected priest from Sicily that had worked with several Popes and was even at the bedside of Pope Paul I when he died. The office was finally in good and proper hands.
Anti-Pope Phillip was dismissed and was allowed to return to his monastery in peace,but Anti-Pope Constantine II…..Oh that guy…..that guy paid dearly for trying to steal the chair of St.Peter. Beaten,tortured and paraded around Rome on horseback(on a woman’s saddle!)with heavy weights hanging from his feet,as crowds screamed insults at him and threw things. While he was in jail,his remaining supporters stirred up new trouble,so now Rome officials decided to further punish him for being a symbol of dissent. Constantine was dragged from jail,blinded and had his tongue ripped out of his mouth. He was then left in the street for 24 hours with everyone under strict orders to not help him or even speak to him. The poor man was then excommunicated and shipped off to God knows where. Whether or not Pope Stephen III had anything to do with much of this is still debated.