Pope Stephen VIII
|Papacy began||14 July 939|
|Papacy ended||October 942|
Rome, Papal States
Rome, Papal States
Stephen VIII was born of a Roman family, and prior to becoming pope was attached to the church of Saints Silvester and Martin. With his elevation as Bishop of Rome, Stephen gave his attention to the situation in West Francia, or as the Romans still referred to it, Gaul. In early 940, Stephen intervened on behalf of Louis IV of France, who had been trying to bring to heel his rebellious dukes, Hugh the Great and Herbert II, Count of Vermandois, both of whom had appealed for support from the German king Otto I. The Pope dispatched a Papal legate to the Frankish nobles, instructing them to acknowledge Louis, and to cease their rebellious actions against him, under threat of excommunication. Although the embassy did not achieve its stated objective, it did have the effect of removing the support of the Frankish bishops who had been backing Hugh and Herbert.
Emboldened by this, Stephen then sought to break up the alliance against Louis by offering Herbert’s son, Hugh of Vermandois, the office of Archbishop of Reims. Along with the Pallium (the symbol of office for the archbishop), Stephen sent another legate, with instructions to the Frankish nobility, insisting that they submit to Louis. This time they were informed that if the pope had not received their embassies by Christmas, notifying him of their intent to submit to the king, they would be excommunicated. This time, there was a shift in support to Louis, as a number of the more important nobles declared for him, and by the end of 942, all of the nobility had affirmed their loyalty to Louis, and notified the pope of their intent.
Closer to home, things were a lot more difficult for Stephen. The continuing domination of the Counts of Tusculum was evident throughout Stephen’s pontificate, as it was during that of his predecessors and successors (see Saeculum obscurum). Although Stephen was subject to Alberic II of Spoleto, Prince of the Romans, and did not in reality rule the Papal States, Stephen himself was not a member of that family, nor had he any relationship with Marozia, who had dominated Roman and papal politics during the preceding decades. Stephen was however caught up in the ongoing conflict between Alberic II and Hugh of Italy, with Hugh besieging Rome in 940. After a failed assassination attempt against Alberic, which involved a number of bishops, Alberic cracked down on any potential dissent in Rome, with his enemies either scourged, beheaded or imprisoned. If there is any truth to Martin of Opava’s account of the torture and maiming of Stephen VIII by supporters of Alberic (see below), it must have occurred at this juncture, in the aftermath of the conspiracy, and just prior to Stephen’s death.
On August 17, 942, Alberic summoned a council in Rome, where he demonstrated his control over the papacy by making use of various papal officials, such as the Primicerius, the Secundicerius of the Notaries, and the Vestararius. Stephen died during October 942, and was succeeded by Marinus II.
Alternative account 
According to the late 13th century chronicler Martin of Opava, Stephen VIII was described as being a German, who was elected pope due to the power and influence of his royal relative, the German king Otto I. Martin states that Otto ignored the will of the cardinals in imposing Stephen upon them, and because Stephen was hated for being a German, he was taken by supporters of Alberic II, who proceeded to maim and disfigure him to such an extent that Stephen was unable to appear in public again. This version of events has largely been discredited; contemporary and near-contemporary catalogues state that Stephen was a Roman. Further, Otto’s intervention in and influence over Italian affairs was still over a decade away, and during this period Otto was still trying to consolidate his hold on power in Germany, with major rebellions by the German dukes. Consequently, Otto would have been too preoccupied to concern himself over the papal succession at this juncture. Finally, Stephen’s intervention on behalf of the Frankish king Louis IV (who was in conflict with Otto) would not have occurred had Stephen been a relative of the German king, and had Stephen received the papal throne through Otto’s intervention. The maiming of Stephen may have occurred, however, in the aftermath of the conspiracy against Alberic in the middle of 942.
- Mann, Horace K., The Lives of the Popes in the Early Middle Ages, Vol. IV: The Popes in the Days of Feudal Anarchy, 891-999 (1910)
- Mann, pg. 213
- Mann, pgs. 213-214
- Mann, pg. 214
- DeCormenin, Louis Marie; Gihon, James L., A Complete History of the Popes of Rome, from Saint Peter, the First Bishop to Pius the Ninth (1857), pg. 290
- Mann, pgs. 214-215
- Mann, pg. 217
- Mann, pg. 215
- Norwich, John Julius, The Popes: A History (2011), pg. 76
- Mann, pgs. 215-216
- Mann, pgs. 212-213
- Gregorovius, Ferdinand, The History of Rome in the Middle Ages, Vol. VI, pg. 633
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