Obituary: Lady Vestey

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The christening of Prince Harry at St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle, by the Archbishop of Canterbury, in 1984, was a suitably grand affair. It was attended by most of the senior members of the royal family, although Princess Anne was unavoidably detained by a shooting event at Gatcombe Park.

Harry had six godparents including Prince Andrew and Celia Vestey, a family friend. It was the ideal role for her, a practising Anglican who shared with the Windsors a love of horses.

Appropriately Lady Vestey had met her husband during the nuptial celebration for Harry’s parents, the Prince of Wales and Lady Diana Spencer, in 1981. Sam Vestey, the 3rd Baron Vestey, known as “Spam” to his friends, was the extremely wealthy, recently divorced scion of the international meat production group. In his book The Rise and Fall of the House of Vestey, Phillip Knightley wrote: ‘They did not live on the income; they did not live on the interest from their investments; they lived on the interest on the interest.’

Lord and Lady Vestey at Royal Ascot in 2003
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He was a close friend of the prince, she a friend of Lady Diana. “We were on the stairs at Buckingham Palace,” he recalled. ‘Her father said, “Do look after Celia”.’ She recalled: ‘I was wearing some old, clapped-out long dress, nothing glamorous, but he danced with me all night.’ A couple of months later she declined an invitation from him, saying that she had to look after her horse, which by coincidence was also called Sam. Undeterred, Vestey made arrangements for Sam to be brought to his farm before calling her back to repeat the invitation.

In a BBC documentary, she was filmed with Sam the horse, who she would sometimes let roam inside her house. ‘I wouldn’t let just any horse inside,’ she said. ‘He usually comes in once a week while we are having coffee.’ She and Lord Vestey got married in 1981, three days before Christmas. He survives her with their sons, William, who was page of honour to the Queen from 1995 to 1998, and Arthur; both work on the family’s farms in Brazil. She is also survived by their daughter, Mary, who works in the horse-racing industry.

Celia Elizabeth Knight was born in Wantage, Oxfordshire, in 1949, the older of two daughters of Major Guy Knight, MC, who moved in royal circles and was known for his habit of sweeping the Queen Mother’s cigarettes into his pocket for later enjoyment, and his wife Hester (née Lloyd); her sister, Henrietta Knight, is a retired National Hunt race horse trainer.

Their father did not see the point of paying for his daughters to be privately educated so Celia attended the local grammar school, Didcot, where she passed ten O-levels and four A-levels, a far greater achievement than many of her privately educated peers.

She trained as a state registered nurse at Westminster Hospital, but the week before her final exam fell and broke her neck while riding at Newbury. She sat the paper from her hospital bed, coming second in her cohort and winning the silver medal.

Duly recovered, she worked at a hospital in Roehampton and at the Royal Marsden before returning to Westminster as a sister.

Four years after her marriage, Vestey collapsed at the family home, Stowell Park in Gloucestershire, while putting up Christmas decorations. A brain haemorrhage was diagnosed and she had emergency surgery. Her recovery took a year and she was no longer able to drive a car. However, she continued to drive her horse and cart around the 6,500-acre estate.

In addition to her favourite horse Sam, Lady Vestey was the owner of Maximise, a gelding who was trained by her sister. Henrietta once explained how Lord Vestey, who was also chairman of Cheltenham racecourse, had suggested that a new horse might help his wife while recovering from her illness. Maximise went on to win the Feltham Novices’ Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day 2001.

Vestey, a lively figure who was known in the family as Ce Ce, remained part of the Queen’s circle of racing friends. She and her husband, who was the royal household’s master of the horse from 1999 to 2018, would often stay at Sandringham or Windsor Castle. Despite using a buggy or wheelchair to get around, she travelled a great deal and especially enjoyed working on the garden at the family’s property in the Australian state of Victoria.

Prince Harry’s time in the armed forces, his marriage to Meghan Markle and his departure to California meant that Vestey had seen less of her godson in recent years, although she was among the guests at the couple’s wedding in May 2018. ‘She was close to Harry,’ said Lord Vestey. ‘He would give her a hug whenever they met. She saw a lot of him in the old days.’

Lady Vestey, race horse owner, was born on October 11, 1949. She died after a stroke on November 28, 2020, aged 71.

Obituary courtesy of The Times