chapter twenty seven

invasion, intrigue and in-fighting mark the end of the Charlemagne era

The last twenty five years of the ninth century revealed many problems within the papacy as well as the Holy Roman Empire which was now no longer one, but split among sibling ancestors of the great Charlemagne who had ruled nearly a century prior. The factions throughout Europe had to deal with the invasions of the Saracens and the Vikings - two foes who knew no boundaries when it came to spoils and destruction. To guard against this, and unable to depend on the diversified Frankish kings to help them in times of crisis, the people banded together and formed their own fortresses which eventually became small kingdoms. They would elect a leader who would train the men around him and to whom they would give their fidelity. Many of these men as well as their fathers had fought in the armies of the Frankish Emperors, some of the oldest for Charlemagne, and thus were experienced in warfare. To assure their loyalty they pledged their fidelity to the appointed ruler of the particular fortress or castle and the king would give some the title of duke or count which, in time, would become one of the most coveted and powerful of titles for they had immediate control and power over the people for they lived in the immediate area of the populace whereas the king lived a long distance away. The king, in need of bodies in case of all out war, could count on these individual fiefdoms to rally behind him and come to his aid. As part of this agreement the king requested something in return both for himself and for those he had appointed locally. In turn for protection by the king and the soldiers under the dukes or counts, the people guaranteed them a portion of their crops, wares, talents and treasures and the rulers of these feudal kingdoms lived very well because of the outpouring of gifts or "taxes" given to them by the people. It was the beginning of the feudal system that would plunge Europe into the "Dark Ages"...but more on that in later chapters. For now suffice it to say that feudalism gave rise to corruption and bitterness within the Church as we shall see in this chapter and the next for the popes could no longer count on the Frankish kings to come running to their side when a crisis arose. Therefore many of the pontiffs were forced into "convenient alliances" with less savory characters because of need. To compensate these various rulers of questionable morals, the Vatican was forced to compromise and often bestow bishoprics and other honors on people not deserving. To complicate this further, when one pope died, the next one more often than not cleaned house, bringing in his own people and lavishing appointments on those who had helped him. This created many enemies from the previous regime and alienated the people who looked for spiritual leadership. Sadly, the last quarter of the 800's there was more of an emphasis on temporal affairs than on spiritual matters by those prelates and, sadly, some of the pontiffs.

Such was the case when Pope John VIII was selected as the 107th in the line of Peter on December 14, 872 immediately after the death of his predecessor Pope Hadrian IIthe same day. John had been an archdeacon for 20 years and a close confidante of Pope Saint Nicholas I, Hadrian's predecessor. He would be known throughout history as a "political pope" as we shall see here in this article. John's first duty was to defend Rome from the invading Saracens coming up from the south. Because he had no confidence in any of the local military leaders and had no immediate help from any other country, John personally commandeered all military operations. He built a wall around St. Paul's and even skippered a small papal armada. As hard as he tried to unite the southern provinces against the Muslim forces, they were unable to overcome the bitter rivalries among provinces and divided, they fell. The Pope's one ally, Emperor Louis II, great grandson of Charlemagne, died in August 875. On Christmas day of the same year John crowned Louis' uncle Charles the Gross (or Charles the Bald) as the Holy Roman Emperor. It was a surprise move to most who assumed that title would go to Louis' half brother Louis the German but John felt Charles would be of more help in his immediate struggles with the Muslim forces. Charles was so grateful that he extended the boundaries of the papal states and even gave up the right to have resident envoys in Rome who had, in the past, greatly effected the outcome of papal elections. Many who had been jilted by this move plotted against both Charles and the Pope. They rallied around a bishop in Porto who had been a successful missionary in the region of Bulgaria. He had been so successful and showed so much potential that many were touting him for the papacy. His name was Formosus and he would indeed ascend to the papal throne but not before the greatest of humiliations before he became Pope, while he was Pope and after as well. We shall explain this later. For now suffice it to say that when John VIII heard of the plot to elevate Formosus, he moved quickly to suppress this by officially excommunicating Formosus in 878. But he still had problems with the continuing Saracen threat and, as it turned out, Charles did not have the expertise or forces to help the pontiff. Add to this that when Charles' cousin Carloman, who was Louis the German's son, marched into Italy to claim heir to the throne and all of Italy, instead of standing up to Carloman, Charles retreated in haste and died of frostbite in the Alps enroute to France. With Carloman in control, John VIII's enemies marched on the Vatican, imprisoned the Pope, forcing the citizens of the papal states to vow allegiance to Carloman. John however fled, refusing such measures and went in search of an emperor to overthrow Carloman. His first choice was Louis the Stammerer, another of the weak Carolingian new generation. John crowned Louis on September 7, 878 but less than a year later Louis died before he could mount a force to overthrow Carloman. His next choice turned out to be a real clown - figuratively and literally by the name of Boso who was Louis II's brother-in-law and quite inefficient. Realizing he could not pin his hopes on such a man, John VIII though he abhored the German Franks, relented and chose Charles III (or Charles the Fat, Louis the German's second son whom he crowned King of Italy in 879. Charles conquered and killed Carloman in 880 and the following year was crowned emperor. Besides help from Charles, John VIII turned to the East and Constantinople for any kind of help in staving off the Saracens. In return for helping, the Eastern Church coerced the Pope to compromise on appointments including recognizing the Patriarch Photius who had been anathematized in 869 by Hadrian II. That and the fact he bought off the Arab Saracens to protect Rome did not sit well with loyalists of Hadrian or many in his own entourage who felt the Pope had sold out. This would ultimately lead to John VIII being the first pontiff to be assassinated by his own people who poisoned him on December 16, 882 and then, to add insult to final injury, clubbed him to death.

His successor was Pope Marinus I, a Gallesian priest who was chosen on the same day of John VIII's death. He was elevated to the papal throne without Charles III's blessing but this was alleviated the following summer when the emperor returned to Italy and Marinus met him in the northern part of the country. Their meeting was amicable and both agreed it was necessary to pardon Formosus. This was probably the most significant event of Marinus' papacy because it set in motion the rollercoaster journey of Formosus who would become the 111th in the line of Peter less than ten years later. Marinus did exert great pressure on the Eastern Emperor to control schismatics. Like his predecessor, he too was suspected of being poisoned, this time by infiltrators. He died on May 15, 884.

Two days later Pope Saint Hadrian III was elected as pontiff and he uncovered the plots of those who had schemed against both John VIII and Marinus. He vindicated those who had been falsely accused and revealed the names of those who were involved, publicly humiliating them. There is no affidavit on why Hadrian III was a saint and one can only assume that behind the scenes misinformation filtered down through the years allowed him to "slip through the cracks" and be "rubberstamped" as a saint in 1891 by Pope Leo XIII. Politically he sought the assurance of Charles III that Rome and the papal states would be protected. In return Charles, who was childless by his first marriage, sought to confirm his bastard son Bernard as the rightful heir to the throne. Thus he invited Hadrian to France to attend the imperial diet at Worms to settle matters and reach an agreement. Hadrian, however, never made it to his destination. dying suspiciously near Modena in northern Italy in September of 885. Many suspected foul play, especially that his body was never returned to Rome but rather buried quickly at the abbey in Nonantula.

That same month Pope Stephen V, a Roman-born aristocrat turned cardinal was elected by acclamation. It was an appointment he had not sought and responded by locking himself in his house, refusing to come out. But the people would have none of it and broke down the barricade and triumphantly hoisted him on their shoulders and carried him to the Vatican where he humbly accepted the papacy as the wish of the people. Charles III, when he heard of this popular choice by the Romans, feared his original proposed pact with Hadrian III would be either weakened or discarded, sent his hand-picked chancellor Liutward to have Stephen deposed. But Stephen used wisdom, patience and kindness to win Liutward over and the two invited Charles to Rome. Stephen looked forward to this meeting for he, too, realized the need for protection. But that protection nor Charles never arrived for urgent matters forced Charles to abandon his journey midway and recross the Alps back to France to settle a crisis there. That crisis lead to the downfall of Charles in November 887 and signaled the official end of the empire of Charlemagne on January 13, 888 when Charles died with no heir to succeed him for Bernard had also been killed when rebels deposed Charles even though the latter had managed to have his nephew Arnulf proclaimed king of the East Franks. Arnulf fled to Italy with no appreciable forces at his side. Stephen, seeing the handwriting on the wall, turned to the duke of Spoleto, Guido III who used the Pope to further his own ends - that of controlling the papacy which he achieved on February 21, 891 when Stephen crowned him, out of fear, the Holy Roman emperor in a lavish ceremony at St. Peter's. Stephen had adopted Guido III as his son in hopes of cementing a union between the emperor and the papacy but the Pope was naive in so many ways and was greatly influenced by bad counsel as intrigue plagued the Vatican. An example of this was how he handled the successor to Saint Methodius who died on April 6, 885. Archbishop Methodius had been so successful in Moravia bringing the Slavonic liturgy there where it flourished. Before his death he strongly suggested his disciple Goradz succeed him, but the German clergy and some within the Vatican opposed this and convinced Stephen to summon Goradz to Rome where he was reassigned and the Germans were able to manipulate not only the Pope but also Moravia. As a result the Slavonic liturgy was outlawed and Methodius' disciples were forced to flee to Bulgaria where they had to revert to the Byzantine rite in the Slav language because they received no cooperation from Rome. It was another faux pais that led to the eventual split of the Eastern and Western Churches. This turn of events which Methodius feared, turned many away from Rome and strengthened the Eastern Church where the Slav churches began to flourish spreading and ensconcing itself in Russia. It was an opportunity that was there for Rome, but because strong pontiffs were not the norm during this period of history, it slipped away. Stephen V died on September 14, 891 and with him the last vestiges of the Frankish Empire that Charlemagne had carved out a century earlier. In the next issue, we shall deal with the next six popes during this 25 year period beginning with the turbulent reign of Formosus.

  • Previous chapters of this series

  • Back to Front Page of this issue of A CALL TO PEACE