chapter twenty nine

Tension, Theophylact and Theodora terrorize the Holy See at the start of the Tenth Century

The fallout from the pro-Formosus factions and those who were violently opposed the deceased Pope Formosus once more reared their ugly heads as the tenth century began with Pope Benedict IV being elected the 117th in the line of Peter on February 1, 900. The I Sommi Pontefici Romani states that "amidst all the prevailing corruption he succeeded in maintaining the integrity of the Holy See. In the terrible confusion of intrigues and hatred he constantly sought out the way of justice." That justice consisted of sorting out the politics of elections and ordinations that had taken place during the reign of the notorious Pope Stephen VI and striving to be fair to the calling of each individual involved. The result was a fair pope who sought to restore order. It was further complicated when the Emperor Lambert died and failed to leave an heir to the throne. With the crown up for grabs he was fair in dealings with the two pretenders to the prize - Berengar I of Fruili and the young King Louis of Provence who was the grandson of Emperor Louis II. Berengar played the first hand, failing miserably by being routed by the Magyars. Louis followed this up by showing military might and prompting Benedict IV to crown him Emperor in February 901. This railed Berengar who rallied his forces to ambush Louis and force him into retreat, conceding defeat. To save his own life and that of his men, Louis signed a treaty that he would return to France and never set foot again in Italy. Once again Rome was without an emperor and anarchy ruled the day as Benedict passed on to his Heavenly reward in July 903. Though it is not documented, many historians believe he was murdered by Berengar's men in the Pope's Vatican chambers.

Benedict's successor was Pope Leo V who was elected the same month and only survived two months before also being assassinated in September 903. It is interesting that Leo was not a clergyman, but a stranger of high repute. It also spoke of the times when there were few worthy of such an exalted office of Vicar of Christ. Legend has it that Leo was a holy man from Brittany who was visiting Rome in hopes of meeting the Pope and stumbled upon the open conclave after Benedict's death. The electors were so frustrated that they quizzed him and then offered him the Chair of Peter. His pontificate did not last long for one of the priests within the Vatican, Christopher fomented a palace rebellion and had Leo murdered and then pronounced himself Pope. This antipope did not last long though he rallied many who were pro-Formosus to his side, attributed to the fact that many resented Leo as an outsider. Fortunately a murderer for a pope was not accepted by the clergy or populace and on January 29, 904 Pope Sergius III was elevated to the papacy after he had led an angry mob to the Vatican and overthrew Christopher, imprisoning him. However it was like going from the frying pan into the fire for Sergius was a bitter hater of Formosus and sought to "open the whole can of worms again" by discarding all the proclamations made by Popes Theodore II, John IX and Benedict IV and reasserting the "cadaver synod." It was his way of revenge for he had been elected pope back in 897 only to be deposed by John IX the good pro-Formosus pontiff. One can imagine the confusion the faithful were thrown into - on again, off again...what about the priests who had been ordained and now were supposedly defrocked? To put it succinctly, the Church was losing credibility as tensions tightened. Despite his despotic rule, he did rebuild the Basilica of St. John Lateran which had been destroyed by fire. Though he was not a good spiritual leader, he did not let the fuedal lords usurp the authority of the Church, defending the Church's rights in regard property and protocol. Sergius was a vain man who took great pains to prepare his tomb in St. Peter's for his effigy, even having coins minted with his likeness on them wearing a tiara, the first pontiff to wear the papal cone-shaped miter. The coins were dispersed liberally upon his death on April 14, 911 and he was succeeded by Pope Anastasius III who assumed the papacy in June, 911. Anastasius was powerless to prevent unscrupulous aristocratic families who were controlling the Vatican, holding Holy Mother Church hostage through finances and underhanded back-room manipulations. One such family was the notorious Theophylact and his equally dastardly wife Theodora who were extremely unscrupulous. To further exasperate the situation in Rome Anastasius did not reply to the Eastern Patriarch Nicholas I Mysticus' pleas to not approve the Constantinople Emperor Leo VI's fourth marriage in 906 as well as reproaching the pontiff for the behavior of Sergius III's envoys. Nicholas demanded amends and an apology but never received one from this weak-kneed pope and thus the former not only removed Anastasius' name from the diptychs in the Eastern rite, but signaled the alarm that the chasm between Rome and Constantinople had grown too wide for any reconciliation. Like some of his predecessors Anastasius was also poisoned but by whom no one knows for it is doubtful it was anyone from Theophylact's camp for Anastasius was the perfect pawn in their hands. Regardless, his death was in June 913 and immediately Pope Lando was selected to succeed him as the 121st Vicar of Christ. His reign was only six months and eleven days and in all probability was orchestrated by the machinations of Theophylact and Theodora. Little else is known about Lando except he died mysteriously, quite possibly at the hands of Theodora who suspected he was doublecrossing her since he had tried to bring the internal factions together in peace. With his death in March 914 the papacy seemed in shambles but when things look the darkest God allows good to come about. Such was the case with the election of Pope John X, born at Tossignano in Romagna, Italy. Though he had been elevated through the dealings of Theodora, once he became Pope he became his own man. For awhile he was harassed by rumors that he had been her secret lover, but these had been launched by those opposed to his election and no proof was provided. Add to this that his attention had to be focused on the mounting threat of the Saracens who were devastating central Italy with their incessant raids. John amassed an army and personally led a Roman army, financed by Theophylact, against the Muslims. Aided by a coalition of Italian noblemen and naval assistance from Byzantium, John soundly defeated the infidels at the mouth of the Garigliano River in August 915. Temporarily it was the end of the Moslem threat in Italy and John crowned Berenger I emperor at St. Peter's in December of the same year. In return for the coronation Berenger promised to guarantee the rights and legacy of Holy Mother Church and vowed to protect her property. With this settled, John turned his back on the nefarious Theophylact and Theodora and set himself to righting the ship ecclesiastically. Theophylact was dying and Theodora was so caught up in paranoia that they could not devote their full forces against John X. This helped him focus on keeping the French sees on the straight and narrow as well as endeavoring to bring Croatia and Dalmatia back into the folds of Holy Mother Church, doing all in his power to suppress the Slav language in the liturgy which screamed of the Eastern rite. While his interference further widened the already deep gorge between Rome and Constantinople, it did help preserve the Church in most of Croatia where it still thrives today. He was an ambitious pope who seldom slept according to some and according to others dabbled in too many political affairs, siting his confirming the election of a five year old son of a count to an archbishopric. In February 928, nineteen years after the Benedictine Abbey of Cluny had been founded in France, received a reassuring assertion from John X that the monastery was truly under the auspices of Rome and the French bishops could not interfere. Lavish restoration of the Lateran and the establishment of strict seminary schools are attributed to this pope. Once again politics played a pivotal role in his demise when John X sought to procur from the new king of Italy Hugh of Provence the protection promised by Berenger I who had died in 924. Add to this that John enlisted the help of his own brother Peter and a powerful alliance was being formed. While Theodora was now too old to wreak direct havoc, she became a Herodius to Salome - her own daughter Marozia who had become the ruthless senatrix in Rome and the true power of the family. She orchestrated a concentrated effort to discredit John X and his brother Peter, spreading the vicious rumor that it was Peter who enticed the Magyars to Italy. It was so devastating that in late 927 many believed it and Peter was killed in the presence of John X at the Lateran. The Pope was subsequently deposed six months later in May 928 and thrown in prison, the rumors so rampant that most believed them and approved of the move. For a year John X languished in a dank cell beneath Castel Sant'Angelo before Marozia ordered a guard to suffocate him with a pillow. In the next installment we will see further damage wrought by this nefarious family now headed by Theodora's daughter Marozia who was even worse than her mother.