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Chequers during the Blair Ministry in 2006
|Built||First house, around 12th Century|
|Occupants||Prime Minister of the United Kingdom
|Events||24th G8 Summit (hosted leader spouses)|
Chequers, or Chequers Court, is the country house retreat of the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. The residence is located near Ellesborough, to the south of Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire, England, at the foot of the Chiltern Hills. Coombe Hill, once part of the estate can be seen just behind. It has been the private retreat of the Prime Minister since 1921.
Origin of the name Chequers
The original house probably gained its name in the 12th century because it may have been built or inhabited by an individual named Elias Ostiarius (or de Scaccario), who was acquiring land in the Ellesborough area at the time. The name "Ostiarius" meant an usher of the Court of the Exchequer. Elias Ostiarius' coat of arms included the chequer board of the Exchequer, so it is likely he named his estate after his arms and position at court. The house passed through generations of the De Scaccario family (spelt in many different forms) until it seems to have passed into the D'Awtrey family, whose name was eventually anglicised to Hawtrey.
Another explanation sometimes offered is that the house is named after the Chequers Trees that grow in its grounds. Also known as Wild Service Tree (Sorbus torminalis), it produces small berries which are called Chequers. There is a reference to this in the book Elizabeth: Apprenticeship by David Starkey, which describes the early life of Elizabeth I.
There has been a house on the site since the 12th century; however, little is known for sure of the early history of the 16th-century mansion known today as Chequers.
What is known is that one William Hawtrey restored and enlarged the house in 1565. A reception room in the house bears his name today. It was this same William Hawtrey who, immediately after completing the house, guarded a royal prisoner at Chequers—Lady Mary Grey, younger sister of Lady Jane Grey and great granddaughter of King Henry VII. She had married without her family's consent and was banished from court by Queen Elizabeth I and kept confined to ensure that she had no descendants. Lady Mary remained at Chequers for a period of two years. The "cell" where she slept from 1565 to 1567 is still kept as it was and appears even by today's standards quite a comfortable bedroom. It is possible she was imprisoned to curb her independence and prevent any challenge to the throne such as that caused by her elder sister.
Through descent in the female line and marriages, the house passed through several families: the Wooleys, the Crokes, and the Thurbanes. In 1715, the then owner of the house married a John Russell, a grandson of Oliver Cromwell. The house is well known for this connection to the Cromwells, and it still contains a large collection of Cromwell memorabilia.
In the 19th century, the Russells (by now the Greenhill-Russell family) employed William Atkinson to make modern alterations to the house in the Gothic style. The Tudor panelling and windows were ripped out and battlements with pinnacles installed. Towards the end of the 19th century, the house passed through marriage to the Astley family. Instead of taking up residence, they let the house to the Clutterbuck family, who loved the house so much that when they left in 1909 they had a near replica built in Bedfordshire at Putteridge Bury.
Following the Clutterbucks' departure, the house was taken on a long lease by a Mr. and Mrs. Arthur Lee. Lee and his wife Ruth (an American heiress) were in need of a country home and Chequers suited their needs. Immediately they commenced the huge process of restoration; the Gothic "improvements" were swept away and the Tudor style house seen today re-emerged from the scaffolding. In 1912 following the death of the last of the house's ancestral owners (Henry Delavel Astley), Ruth Lee and her sister purchased the property and later gave it to Arthur Lee.
During World War I the house became a hospital and then a convalescent home for officers. Following the end of hostilities and the reinstatement of Chequers as a home (now furnished with many 16th-century antiques and tapestries and the Cromwellian antiquities), the childless Lees formed a plan. While previous Prime Ministers had always belonged to the landed classes, the post-World War I era was bringing in a new breed of politician. These men did not have the country palaces of previous prime ministers to entertain foreign dignitaries, or a tranquil place to relax from the affairs of state. Hence, after lengthy discussions with then Prime Minister David Lloyd George, Chequers was given to the nation as a country retreat for the serving Prime Minister by the Chequers Estate Act 1917.
Arthur and Ruth Lee, by this time Lord and Lady Lee of Fareham, left Chequers on 8 January 1921 after a final dinner at the house. A political disagreement between the Lees and Lloyd George soured the hand-over, which went ahead nevertheless.
A stained glass window in the long gallery of the house commissioned by Lord and Lady Lee of Fareham 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 property houses one of the largest collections of art and memorabilia pertaining to Oliver Cromwell in the country. It also houses many other national antiques and books held in the famous 'long room', including a diary of Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson. However, this exquisite collection is not open to the public.
Nearby Coombe Hill was part of the estate until the 1920s when it was given to the National Trust. Coombe Hill and the Chequers Estate are part of the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, designated in 1965.
During the early part of World War II, it was considered that security at Chequers was inadequate to protect Prime Minister Winston Churchill. He therefore used Ditchley in Oxfordshire until late 1942, by which time the approach road, clearly visible from the sky, had been camouflaged and other security measures had been put in place.
Downing Street and Chequers are about 41 miles apart, by road, a journey of about an hour by car.
Back view of Chequers during the Blair Ministry in 2006
Chequers from the ridgeway with Coombie Hill behind it
- 10 Downing Street — the Prime Minister's London office and official residence of the First Lord of the Treasury.
- Chevening — the British Foreign Secretary's country residence.
- Dorneywood — another country house used by high-ranking British officials
- Camp David — the country retreat of the President of the United States
- List of official residences
- ), Georgina Bertie (Lady; Bertie, Richard (1845). Five generations of a loyal house. Pt. 1, containing the lives of R. Bertie and his son Peregrine, lord Willoughby.
- Hawtrey 1903, pp. 30–1.
- Winston Churchill
- History Lives at Ditchley and Bletchley – The Churchill Centre
Chequers: The House and its History: The Prime Minister's Country House and its History by Norma Major with photos by Mark Fiennes (1996) Harper Collins, reprinted hardcover ISBN 978-0-00-470875-1 [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK] and paperback ISBN 978-0-316-85844-1 [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK].
- Hawtrey, Florence Molesworth (1903). The History of the Hawtrey Family I. London: George Allen. Retrieved 11 February 2013.