On this day in history : 5th October 1917 – ‘Chequers Court’, a 16th century Manor House in Buckinghamshire, is donated to the nation by Sir Arthur Lee as a country retreat for British Prime Ministers….

Chequers Court – Photo credit : Stephen Simpson – own work – Public domain

Chequers is located near the village of Ellesborough at the foot of the Chiltern Hills and is about 40 miles northwest of London…. It is Grade 1 listed and was built by William Hawtrey in 1585, although it may have been the reconstruction of an even earlier building…. Soon after its completion it became the custodial home of Lady Mary Grey, granddaughter of King Henry VII and younger sister of Lady Jane Grey – the ‘Nine Days’ Queen’…. Mary had married without the consent of Queen Elizabeth I and was banished from Court…. She remained at Chequers for two years, from 1565 – 1567; her room remains just as she left it….

The house passed through several families and in 1715 the owner married the grandson of Oliver Cromwell – which explains why so much Cromwell memorabilia can be found there…. During the 19th century Chequers underwent extensive renovations to make it into the Gothic style so favoured by the Victorians…. The Tudor panelling and windows were removed and battlements and pinnacles were installed…. But then the house came into the Astley family at the turn of the 20th century and it was restored to its Elizabethan state….

Rear view of Chequers in 2006 – Photo credit : David Ellis CC BY-SA 2.0

The name ‘Chequers’ may come from Elias Ostiarius, an early owner of the manor of Ellesborough, dating to the 12th century…. ‘Ostiarius’, meaning ‘usher of the Court of the Exchequer’…. Elias was also known as Elias de Scaccario – scacchiera means ‘chessboard’ in Italian and a chessboard – or chequerboard – did feature in his coat of arms…. Another possibility for the name could come from the amount of chequer trees, or wild service trees (Sorbus torminalis) that grow in the grounds…. Native to the UK the tree is related to the mountain ash and rowan…. It is not commonly seen nowadays – but can be a pointer to identifying ancient woodland…. It bears small berry-like fruits, called chequers, which in days gone by were given to children as a sweet treat…. The fruit needs to be bletted (taken from the tree and allowed to ripen further) – but when eaten it has a taste similar to that of dates…. The wild service is a lovely tree and vastly overlooked….

In 1909 Chequers came into the ownership of Arthur Lee – diplomat, politician, soldier and patron of the arts – and his American heiress wife, Ruth…. During World War 1 it became a hospital and then a convalescent home for officers – becoming a private house once more after the War had ended….

After the War there was a noticeable change in British politics…. Previously Prime Ministers had invariably come from privileged backgrounds – but now a new breed of senior politician was coming through…. Men from ordinary backgrounds, without spacious country estates they could retreat to…. The Lees (now Lord and Lady Lee of Fareham) came up with an idea…. They had no children to inherit their wealth and so decided to leave Chequers to the nation…. Talks began with then Prime Minister David Lloyd George and Chequers was given to the nation under the Chequers Estate Act 1917….as a country home where serving Prime Ministers could escape for a bit of tranquility….but also a place to entertain visiting dignitaries….

A stained glass window in the long gallery, commissioned by the Lees, bears the words : “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”….

After a final dinner held at the house the Lees left Chequers to the nation on the 8th of January 1921….

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