Last Friday, January 8 2021, was an important milestone in the history of the Chequers estate, the country retreat of the serving Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Read on to find out why, and more about the rich history of the estate from Elizabethan times.

Chequers Court, to give its formal name, is a sixteenth century gothic mansion, set in a 1,000 acre estate. Its origins are somewhat ambiguous. It is known that the house as it stands today was built, or at least extensively remodelled, by William Hawtrey in 1565. Hawtrey’s name appears in the reception room of the house and his initials and the date of 1565 are carved into the brickwork in various places on the house’s exterior.

What sort of building stood on the site of Chequers before Hawtrey’s remodelling is largely unknown. Dating of building materials suggests that there has been a house on this site since the 12th century. The name ‘Chequers’ may come from the house’s first resident, Elias Ostiarius, whose name indicates that he was an usher of the Court of the Exchequer. The original house passed through many generations of this family before coming into the possession of the Hawtrey family line.

In the same year Hawtrey completed his renovations, Chequers earned its place in British history when it became the prison of the Lady Mary Grey. She was the younger sister of the Lady Jane Grey, who was Queen for nine days before being executed. The sisters were grand-daughters of Henry VIII’s sister Mary and so Henry VIII’s great nieces. Queen Elizabeth I herself ordered Lady Mary Grey’s confinement when she learned that Lady Grey had married without her family’s consent. For two years, between 1565 and 1567, Hawtrey guarded Lady Grey in an attempt to ensure she would have no descendents who might challenge the throne. The room in which Lady Grey was confined has been kept in its original condition.

Chequers was then owned by a number of families, and ultimately the Russells. In 1715 John Russell, who was a grandson of Oliver Cromwell, was the owner. The house still contains a collection of Cromwellian memorabilia as well as other historical artefacts. In 1825, when owned by Sir George Russell, the architect William Atkinson was commissioned to modernize the house in gothic style.

In the late nineteenth century Chequers was taken on a long lease by Mr Arthur Lee, an MP and government Minister, and his American heiress wife, Ruth. The Lees brought the house back to its original Elizabethan style. Then in 1912 they purchased Chequers.

During the first world war the house was used as a hospital and then a convalescent home for officers. It was during the war that the Lees, who became the Lord and Lady of Fareham, decided that they would donate Chequers to be used by the nation. They recognised that huge political change would take place after the war and wanted to pre-empt a situation where the elected Prime Minister of Great Britain may not have the means to fund his own country house. Chequers was to be symbolic of their vision of a fairer political system, where a lack of wealth or an aristocratic background would not disqualify potential future leaders.

In 1917 the Chequers Estate Act was passed through Parliament, preparing the way for the gift to take place. As the Act expresses it: “It is not possible to foresee or foretell from what classes or conditions of life the future wielders of power in this country will be drawn.” The Act created a Trust for the ownership and maintenance of Chequers.

On January 8 1921 the Lord and Lady of Fareham formally handed over Chequers to Prime Minister David Lloyd George. A stained glass window in Chequers has the following 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.” Photographic portraits of all the British prime ministers who have used the residence are on display in the Great Parlour.

During the Second World War, Winston Churchill initially declined to use Chequers as his country retreat due to security concerns. When not in London he resided elsewhere until late 1942 when security measures had been put in place at Chequers. It is known that he then wrote some of his most famous radio speeches in the mansion’s Hawtrey room.

In the last 100 years, the house has played host to hundreds of eminent world leaders and public figures, including Richard Nixon, Mikhail Gorbachev, Robert Mugabe, Vladimir Putin, Angela Merkel, Xi Jinping and Donald Trump.

Momentous events have also taken place there, from Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s near-nervous breakdown in September 1939, to foreign secretary Anthony Eden receiving notification that Nazi Germany had attacked Russia in June 1941.

The peace and tranquillity of the setting in the Buckinghamshire countryside is a major attraction of Chequers. That has allowed many Prime Ministers to reflect and come to difficult decisions, and also to chair meetings to discuss important matters of state.

As set out in the Chequers Estate Act 1917, it was hoped to draw Prime Ministers to “spend two days a week in the high and pure air of the Chiltern hills and woods”. The thinking behind that being “the better the health of our rulers the more sanely will they rule”.

The far-sightedness of the Lord and Lady of Fareham has certainly been realised!

We've launched a new Facebook group to share memories of the area. To join, head over to We Grew Up in Wycombe.