Chequers: Where is the prime minister’s country house and who owns it?
The Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky has arrived at Chequers for “substantive negotiations” over military aid with Rishi Sunak.
Mr Zelensky has been meeting Western leaders over the weekend to seek increased military support to fight the Russian invasion.
As he landed in the UK on Monday morning, Mr Zelensky confirmed he would “meet my friend Rishi”.
The UK government announced last week that it would supply Ukraine with hundreds of air defence missiles and long-range attack drones with a range of more than 200km.
Ahead of the meeting, Rishi Sunak said the UK will be “sustaining our support” for Ukraine.
Pictures showed the Ukrainian leader’s military helicopter landing at the prime minister’s country house Chequers, on Monday morning.
Of all the grand houses across the UK, none is as politically significant as Chequers. Boasting an indoor heated swimming pool and 1,500 acres of lawns, the 16th-century mansion has been the official second home of serving prime ministers since 1921.
The Buckinghamshire estate has never been open to the public — the only way to get a peek is to be involved in politics.
So what is Chequers, who owns it and what significant events have taken place there?
What is Chequers?
Chequers, or Chequers Court, is a country house near the village of Ellesborough in Buckinghamshire at the foot of the Chiltern Hills.
The house and its estate have been the official second home of the serving prime minister for more than 100 years.
It has 10 bedrooms and a putting green, as well as a heated indoor swimming pool in the Orangery, a putting green and 1,500 acres of lawns.
The retreat has provided fresh air and open space for sitting prime ministers since 1917, when it was gifted to the nation by Conservative minister Sir Arthur Lee and his American heiress wife, Ruth.
He did so after realising that the politicians coming to prominence after the First World War were no longer from the landed classes. He said they would therefore be unlikely to have country estates at which to entertain foreign dignitaries or to relax.
As set out in the Chequers Estate Act 1917, it was hoped to draw the sitting PM to “spend two days a week in the high and pure air of the Chiltern hills and woods”.
The thinking behind that is “the better the health of our rulers, the more sanely will they rule”.
A stained glass window in the building reads: “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.”
Who owns the Chequers estate?
The Chequers Trust owns the estate but it is in complete control of whoever is prime minister at the time. David Lloyd George became its first prime ministerial occupant in 1921. However, the estate is managed by an independent trust and maintained by an endowment administered by the trustees.
Why is the house called Chequers?
There’s no confirmed reason why Chequers has its name. The current mansion was built by William Hawtrey in about 1565, although the name possibly comes from the 12th century. One theory is that it comes from an early owner of the manor of Ellesborough, Elias Ostiarius (or de Scaccario).
The name “Ostiarius” meant an usher of the Court of the Exchequer and scacchiera means a chessboard in Italian. Elias Ostiarius’s coat of arms included the chequerboard of the Exchequer, so the estate may be named after his arms and position at court.
Others point to the large number of chequer trees growing on the grounds.
Historic political moments
The site is no stranger to historic moments. Sir Winston Churchill is known to have written some of his most famous radio speeches during the Second World War in the mansion’s Hawtrey room.
The estate was used by the prime minister at the time, Theresa May, as the location for a crunch 2018 Cabinet meeting to agree her new Brexit proposals. But, in the following days, senior ministers including then-foreign secretary Boris Johnson resigned in disagreement over the plans.
In 2020, as PM, Mr Johnson went to Chequers to recuperate as he recovered from the coronavirus.
He was reunited with his then-pregnant fiancée Carrie Symonds to spend time at the mansion, following a seven-night spell in hospital about which he said “things could have gone either way”.
The couple originally planned to throw their wedding party at Chequers. They were said to have sent out save-the-date cards for a celebration on July 30, 2022, before deciding to change the location to Daylesford House — a grand Cotswolds estate of a major Tory donor.
Inside Chequers, photographic portraits of all the British prime ministers who have used the residence are on display in the Great Parlour.
During a visit in 2015, then-prime minister David Cameron told the French president, François Hollande, that Chequers is “a good place for thinking — away from London”.
Visitors over the years have ranged from the Queen to foreign leaders such as Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump, and celebrities including Sir Elton John, Bryan Adams and David Bowie.
The late disgraced television presenter Jimmy Savile made several visits while Margaret Thatcher was prime minister. He once claimed he spent 11 consecutive Christmasses at Chequers.