Full Report for Listed Buildings

Summary Description of a Listed Buildings

Reference Number
Building Number
Date of Designation
Date of Amendment
Name of Property
Penrhyn Castle  


Unitary Authority
Penrhyn Park  
Street Side
Set in landscaped grounds of Penrhyn Park in elevated position surrounded by open lawns and some trees at end of long winding drive from Grand Lodge; dominates the surrounding countryside.  


Broad Class

The present house, built in the form of a vast Norman castle, was constructed to the design of Thomas Hopper for George Hay Dawkins-Pennant between 1820 and 1837. It has been very little altered since. The original house on the site was a medieval manor house of C14 origin, for which a licence to crenellate was given at an unknown date between 1410 and 1431. This house survived until c1782 when it was remodelled in castellated Gothick style, replete with yellow mathematical tiles, by Samuel Wyatt for Richard Pennant. This house, the great hall of which is incorporated in the present drawing room, was remodelled in c1800, but the vast profits from the Penrhyn slate quarries enabled all the rest to be completely swept away by Hopper's vast neo-Norman fantasy, sited and built so that it could be seen not only from the quarries, but most parts of the surrounding estate, thereby emphasizing the local dominance of the Dawkins-Pennant family. The total cost is unknown but it cannot have been less than the £123,000 claimed by Catherine Sinclair in 1839. Since 1951 the house has belonged to the National Trust, together with over 40,000 acres of the family estates around Ysbyty Ifan and the Ogwen valley.  

Country house built in the style of a vast Norman castle with other later medieval influences, so huge (its 70 roofs cover an area of over an acre (0.4ha)) that it almost defies meaningful description. The main components of the house, which is built on a north-south axis with the main elevations to east and west, are the 124ft (37.8m) high keep, based on Castle Hedingham (Essex) containing the family quarters on the south, the central range, protected by a 'barbican' terrace on the east, housing the state apartments, and the rectangular-shaped staff/service buildings and stables to the north. The whole is constructed of local rubblestone with internal brick lining, but all elevations are faced in tooled Anglesey limestone ashlar of the finest quality jointing; flat lead roofs concealed by castellated parapets. Close to, the extreme length of the building (it is about 200 yards (182.88m) long) and the fact that the ground slopes away on all sides mean that almost no complete elevation can be seen. That the most frequent views of the exterior are oblique also offered Hopper the opportunity to deploy his towers for picturesque effect, the relationship between the keep and the other towers and turrets frequently obscuring the distances between them. Another significant external feature of the castle is that it actually looks defensible making it secure at least from Pugin's famous slur of 1841 on contemporary "castles" - "Who would hammer against nailed portals, when he could kick his way through the greenhouse?" Certainly, this could never be achieved at Penrhyn and it looks every inch the impregnable fortress both architect and patron intended it to be. East elevation: to the left is the loosely attached 4-storey keep on battered plinth with 4 tiers of deeply splayed Norman windows, 2 to each face, with chevron decoration and nook-shafts, topped by 4 square corner turrets. The dining room (distinguished by the intersecting tracery above the windows) and breakfast room to the right of the entrance gallery are protected by the long sweep of the machicolated 'barbican' terrace (carriage forecourt), curved in front of the 2 rooms and then running northwards before returning at right-angles to the west to include the gatehouse, which formed the original main entrance to the castle, and ending in a tall rectangular tower with machicolated parapet. To the right of the gatehouse are the recessed buildings of the kitchen court and to the right again the long, largely unbroken outer wall of the stable court, terminated by the square footmen's tower to the left and the rather more exuberant projecting circular dung tower with its spectacularly cantilevered bartizan on the right. From here the wall runs at right-angles to the west incorporating the impressive gatehouse to the stable court. West elevation: beginning at the left is the hexagonal smithy tower, followed by the long run of the stable court, well provided with windows on this side as the stables lie directly behind. At the end of this the wall turns at right-angles to the west, incorporating the narrow circular-turreted gatehouse to the outer court and terminating in the machicolated circular ice tower. From here the wall runs again at a lower height enclosing the remainder of the outer court. It is, of course, the state apartments which make up the chief architectural display on the central part of this elevation, beginning with a strongly articulated but essentially rectangular tower to the left, while both the drawing room and the library have Norman windows leading directly onto the lawns, the latter terminating in a slender machicolated circular corner tower. To the right is the keep, considerably set back on this side.  

Only those parts of the castle generally accessible to visitors are recorded in this description. Although not described here much of the furniture and many of the paintings (including family portraits) are also original to the house. Similarly, it should be noted that in the interests of brevity and clarity, not all significant architectural features are itemised in the following description. Entrance gallery: one of the last parts of the castle to be built, this narrow cloister-like passage was added to the main block to heighten the sensation of entering the vast Grand Hall, which is made only partly visible by the deliberate offsetting of the intervening doorways; bronze lamp standards with wolf-heads on stone bases. Grand Hall: entering the columned aisle of this huge space, the visitor stands at a cross-roads between the 3 principal areas of the castle's plan; to the left the passage leads up to the family's private apartments on the 4 floors of the keep, to the right the door at the end leads to the extensive service quarters while ahead lies the sequence of state rooms used for entertaining guests and displayed to the public ever since the castle was built. The hall itself resembles in form, style and scale the transept of a great Norman cathedral, the great clustered columns extending upwards to a "triforium" formed on 2 sides of extraordinary compound arches; stained glass with signs of the zodiac and months of the year as in a book of hours by Thomas Willement (completed 1835). Library: has very much the atmosphere of a gentlemen’s London club with walls, columned arches and ceilings covered in the most lavish ornamentation; superb architectural bookcases and panelled walls are of oak but the arches are plaster grained to match; ornamental bosses and other devices to the rich plaster ceiling refer to the ancestry of the Dawkins and Pennant families, as do the stained glass lunettes above the windows, possibly by David Evans of Shrewsbury; 4 chimneypieces of polished Anglesey "marble", one with a frieze of fantastical carved mummers in the capitals. Drawing room (great hall of the late C18 house and its medieval predecessor): again in a neo-Norman style but the decoration is lighter and the columns more slender, the spirit of the room reflected in the 2000 delicate Maltese gilt crosses to the vaulted ceiling. Ebony room: so called on account of its furniture and "ebonised" chimneypiece and plasterwork, has at its entrance a spiral staircase from the medieval house. Grand Staircase hall: in many ways the greatest architectural achievement at Penrhyn, taking 10 years to complete, the carving in 2 contrasting stones of the highest quality; repeating abstract decorative motifs contrast with the infinitely inventive figurative carving in the newels and capitals; to the top the intricate plaster panels of the domed lantern are formed in exceptionally high relief and display both Norse and Celtic influences. Next to the grand stair is the secondary stair, itself a magnificent structure in grey sandstone with lantern, built immediately next to the grand stair so that family or guests should not meet staff on the same staircase. Reached from the columned aisle of the grand hall are the 2 remaining principal ground-floor rooms, the dining room and the breakfast room, among the last parts of the castle to be completed and clearly intended to be picture galleries as much as dining areas, the stencilled treatment of the walls in the dining room allowing both the provision of an appropriately elaborate "Norman" scheme and a large flat surface for the hanging of paintings; black marble fireplace carved by Richard Westmacott and extremely ornate ceiling with leaf bosses encircled by bands of figurative mouldings derived from the Romanesque church of Kilpeck, Herefordshire. Breakfast room has cambered beam ceiling with oak-grained finish. Grand hall gallery: at the top of the grand staircase is vaulted and continues around the grand hall below to link with the passage to the keep, which at this level (as on the other floors) contains a suite of rooms comprising a sitting room, dressing room, bedroom and small ante-chamber, the room containing the famous slate bed also with a red Mona marble chimneypiece, one of the most spectacular in the castle. Returning to the grand hall gallery and continuing straight on rather than returning to the grand staircase the Lower India room is reached to the right: this contains an Anglesey limestone chimneypiece painted to match the ground colour of the room's Chinese wallpaper. Coming out of this room, the chapel corridor leads to the chapel gallery (used by the family) and the chapel proper below (used by staff), the latter with encaustic tiles probably reused from the old medieval chapel; stained and painted glass by David Evans (c1833). The domestic quarters of the castle are reached along the passage from the breakfast room, which turns at right-angles to the right at the foot of the secondary staircase, the most important areas being the butler's pantry, steward's office, servants' hall, housekeeper's room, still room, housekeeper's store and housemaids' tower, while the kitchen (with its cast-iron range flanked by large and hygienic vertical slabs of Penrhyn slate) is housed on the lower ground floor. From this kitchen court, which also includes a coal store, oil vaults, brushing room, lamp room, pastry room, larder, scullery and laundry are reached the outer court with its soup kitchen, brewhouse and 2-storey ice tower and the much larger stables court which, along with the stables themselves containing their extensive slate-partitioned stalls and loose boxes, incorporates the coach house, covered ride, smithy tower, dung tower with gardeners' messroom above and footmen's tower.  

Reason for designation
Included at Grade I as one of the most important large country houses in Wales; a superb example of the relatively short-lived Norman Revival of the early C19 and generally regarded as the masterpiece of its architect, Thomas Hopper.  

Cadw : Full Report for Listed Buildings [ Records 1 of 1 ]