The original house probably gained its name in the 1100’s because it may have been built or inhabited by an individual named Elias Ostiarius,and the name “Ostiarius” meant an Usher of the Court of the Exchequer. His 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.
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, it produces small berries which are called Chequers.
There has been a house on the site since the 12th century, but the present 16th century house was not well documented in its early years. In 1565 one William Hawtrey restored and enlarged the house, and after completing the house, had the dubious honour of guarding a royal prisoner at Chequers, Lady Mary Grey, younger sister of Lady Jane Grey, who had married without her family’s consent and was banished from court by Queen Elizabeth 1 for two years.
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 still contains a large collection of Cromwell memorabilia. In the 19th century the Russells made modern alterations to the house in the gothic style,and towards the end of the 19th century the house passed through marriage to the Astley family. They let the house to the Clutterbuck family, who loved it so much that when they left in 1909 they had a very similar house built in Bedfordshire.
Following the Clutterbucks’ departure the house was taken on a long lease by Mr Arthur Lee. He and his American wife Ruth were in need of a country home and Chequers suited them. They commenced a huge process of restoration and when the last of the ancestral owners died in 1912 they bought the property. During World War 1 the house became a hospital and then a convalescent home for officers. It was reinstated as a home following the end of hostilities and the childless Lees formed a plan.
Following the war a new breed of politician was entering government. These men did not have the country houses of previous prime ministers in which to entertain foreign dignitaries, or relax from the affairs of state, so after lengthy discussions with David Lloyd George, the then Prime Minister, 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 8th January 1921. You can read more about the benefits that it was hoped Chequers and the surrounding countryside would bring to prime ministers here.
Chequers: The Prime Minister’s Country House and its History by Dame Norma Major, published by Collins in 1996.
The Ridgeway National Trail crosses Victory Drive, the private drive along which Churchill had beech trees planted, and there are good views of the house from the Trail.