On this day in history….8th January 1921

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….

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Image credit : Stephen Simpson

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”….

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Image credit : Number 10 via Flickr

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….

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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….

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Cabinet meeting at Chequers – Image credit : Number 10 via Flickr

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….

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Queen Elizabeth II, Prime Minister Edward Heath joined by US President Richard Nixon and First Lady Pat Nixon during the Nixons’ visit to the UK in 1970…. Image credit : White House photo by Ollie Atkins

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”….

On this day in history….5th October 1917

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….