On this day in history : 8th January 1921 – David Lloyd George becomes the first Prime Minister to reside in Chequers – the 16th Century Manor House in Buckinghamshire….which was given to the Nation by Lord and Lady Lee of Fareham….
Chequers – or Chequers Court to give its full title, is located 41 miles from Downing Street, at the foot of the Chiltern Hills – near to the village of Ellesborough, just outside Great Missenden….
William Hawtrey – High Sheriff of Buckinghamshire – had the current house built circa 1565…. Possibly it may have been constructed around an earlier building already there – as it is thought a house has been on the site since Roman times….
In the 19th Century it underwent alterations to give it a Gothic style…. The Tudor windows and panelling were replaced with battlements and pinnacles….but by the end of the 19th Century it had passed to the Astley family….and Bertram Astley had the house restored back to its Elizabethan origins….
Shortly after it had been built and become the residence of William Hawtrey it also became a place of confinement – for the great-granddaughter of King Henry VII…. Lady Mary Grey was banished from Court by Queen Elizabeth I – for marrying without the Monarch’s consent…. Her room at Chequers is still kept today exactly as it was when she occupied it between 1565 and 1567….
In 1715 the owner at the time married Oliver Cromwell’s grandson, John Russell…. There is a large collection of Cromwell memorabilia to be found at Chequers….
It became the home of Arthur Lee and his American heiress wife in 1901….and they allowed it to be used as a hospital and then a convalescent home for officers during World War 1…. After the war it became the Lees’ private house once again….
The Lees did not have any children – so no future inheritances to consider…. By now they had become Lord and Lady Lee of Fareham – and it was their wish to do something for the Nation…. They came up with an idea….
Before WW1 Britain’s Prime Ministers generally came from aristocratic backgrounds and had their own country estates where they could entertain foreign dignitaries…. Or indeed, retreat away from the stresses of daily life….and relax. After the War it was to become a new breed of politician – politics had become more accessible to all the classes…. Of course, not many ordinary folk have large country houses at their disposal…. So, after much negotiation with David Lloyd George and his government Chequers was given to the Nation, under the ‘Chequers Estate Act 1917’ – for the use of the serving Prime Minister….
Lord and Lady Lee of Fareham left Chequers on the 8th of January 1921 – but before they departed they had commissioned a stained glass window – which is to be found in the long gallery…. It bears the inscription….
“This house of peace and ancient memories was given to England as a thank-offering for her deliverance in the Great War of 1914-1918 as a place of rest and recreation for her Prime Ministers for ever”….
The name ‘Chequers’ has a couple of possibilities as to its origin…. An early owner of the Manor House that stood there in the 12th Century was Elias Ostiarius (or de Scaccario)…. “Ostiarius” meaning “Usher of the Court of the Exchequer”….”Scaccario” has the meaning of “chessboard” in Italian…. Elias Ostiarius had a chequerboard feature within his coat of arms – so maybe the estate was named for him….
Another theory is that it was named after the Wild Service trees (Sorbus torminalis) or ‘Chequers’ – which grow in the grounds….
The Wild Service tree is native to Britain but rarely seen – to come across one often indicates ancient woodland…. The fruits are known a ‘Chequers’ – and were given to children as a sweet treat as they are said to taste like dates…. They can also be made into an alcoholic drink – which may explain why so many public houses are called ‘The Chequers’….
Chequers Court may not be massive in terms of a stately home – it only has ten bedrooms….but it does sit in 1,500 acres of land….
It is grade 1 listed and houses a huge art collection – of some 190 pieces dating from the early 16th Century…. There is even a 1937 piece by Winston Churchill….
It has hosted many World leaders and public figures ~ Richard Nixon, Mikhail Gorbachev, Vladimir Putin, Robert Mugabe, Xi Jinping, Angela Merkel to name but a few….
Margaret Thatcher said of it ~ “I do not think anyone has stayed long at Chequers without falling in love with it”….
Norma Major (wife of former Prime Minister John Major) loved it so much she wrote a book entitled “Chequers : The Prime Minister’s Country House and Its History”….