Who was Zadok the Priest who inspired Handel’s anthem played at King Charles’s coronation?

The choir sang the anthem – known to many as the Champions League theme – as Charles III was anointed with holy oil

Zadok the Priest
and Nathan the Prophet
anointed Solomon King.
And all the people rejoiced and said:
God save The King!
Long live The King!
May The King live for ever!
Amen, Alleluia! Amen.

It was an electrifying moment. As Handel’s music built to a crescendo, the king’s coronation robes were removed to reveal a simple white linen tunic. Screened by intricately embroidered panels, Charles III was anointed with holy oil as the choir sang Zadok the Priest, causing hairs to stand on end.

George Frideric Handel’s anthem was composed for the coronation of George II in 1727 and has been sung at the coronation of every British monarch since. In recent years the music has become familiar to football fans as it was used as the basis of the Champions League anthem.

But who was Zadok the Priest?

The high priest served during the reigns of King David and King Solomon, and his name is mentioned several times in the Old Testament. In Hebrew, Zadok means “just” or “righteous”.

Zadok was descended from Aaron, the brother of Moses. He was appointed as high priest by King David after the rebellion of the king’s son, Absalom.

When Absalom declared himself king and attempted to overthrow his father, Zadok remained loyal to David and helped him to escape from Jerusalem. Later, when David was restored to power, Zadok was instrumental in bringing the ark of the covenant back to Jerusalem.

David appointed Soloman, his 10th son, as his heir on the advice of the prophet Nathan. After David’s death in 970BCE, Zadok anointed Solomon as king.

According to the Old Testament: “So the priest Zadok, the prophet Nathan, and Benaiah son of Jehoiada, and the Cherethites and the Pelethites, went down and had Solomon ride on King David’s mule, and led him to Gihon.

“There the priest Zadok took the horn of oil from the tent and anointed Solomon. Then they blew the trumpet, and all the people said, ‘Long live King Solomon!’” (1 Kings 1:38-39 NRSV)

Zadok’s descendants continued to serve as high priests in Jerusalem for many centuries, and the name “Zadok” became associated with the line of high priests.

Portrait of the German-British composer George Frideric Handel, attributed to the German painter Balthasar Denners, 1727.
Portrait of the German-British composer George Frideric Handel, attributed to the German painter Balthasar Denners, 1727. Photograph: Leemage/UIG/Getty Images

The anointing of the sovereign is the most sacred part of the coronation ceremony. Charles was anointed in private by the archbishop of Canterbury, screened from the congregation and cameras. Holy oil from the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem was used to anoint him on his hands, breast and head.

While the choir was still singing Zadok the Priest, the screens were removed to reveal the king kneeling before the altar, surrounded by the archbishops of Canterbury and York and two other bishops.

As the anthem ended, Charles was vested in the supertunica, an embroidered gold coat – a form of priestly robe to remind people that the king has been consecrated before God.

Handel, who was born in Germany in 1685, moved to Britain in 1712. He became a naturalised British subject in 1727. Three thousand people attended his funeral in 1759.

• This article was amended on 9 May 2023. An earlier version misspelled Handel’s middle name as “Frederick”.


Harriet Sherwood

The GuardianTramp

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