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Chequers

From Academic Kids

Chequers, or Chequers Court, is a large house to the south east of Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire, England, that sits at the foot of the Chiltern Hills. It is the country residence of the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.

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Chequers - the official country residence of British Prime Ministers since 1921

Little is known for sure of the early history of the mansion known today all over the world simply as Chequers. There has been a house on the site since the 12th century. The original house probably gained its name in the 1100s 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.

The present 16th-century house was not well documented in its early years; what is known is that one John Hawtrey restored and enlarged the house in 1565. A reception room in the house bears his name today. It was this same John Hawtrey who, immediately after completing the house, had the dubious honour of guarding a royal prisoner at Chequers—Lady Mary Grey, younger sister of Lady Jane Grey and great grand-daughter 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, in the words of that great virgin Queen, "there were no little bastards". For two years the unfortunate Lady Mary languished at Chequers, although probably not in too much discomfort. 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 in the best "olde worlde" tradition of interior design. The real reason for her imprisonment was probably to kerb her independence, and prevent a 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 Croke family; the Thurbane Family. 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 (now the Greenhill-Russell family) decided to have the house modernised in the best possible taste of Victorian gothic. 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.

Following the Clutterbucks' departure, the house was taken on a long lease by a Mr. and Mrs. Arthur Lee. Arthur Lee (a politician born in 1868) and his American heiress wife Ruth 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 new era was bringing in a new breed of politician. These new men did not have the country palaces of previous Prime Ministers to entertain foreign heads of state, or a tranquil place to relax from the affairs of state. Hence, after lengthy discussions with the 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 Farnham, left Chequers on 8th January 1921. They departed with bitter hearts after a dinner at the house, Lady Lee in tears, as a political disagreement with Lloyd George just before the hand-over had rather soured relations between them and the first recipient.

The Lees had truly loved Chequers, and their munificence has doubtless been appreciated by many Prime Ministers and their families ever since.

A stained glass window in the long gallery of the house commissioned by Lord and Lady Lee of Farnham 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 or 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. The collection is not open to the public.

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