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Penrhyn Castle, Bangor

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Map ReferenceSH67SW
Grid ReferenceSH6025971876
Unitary (Local) AuthorityGwynedd
Old CountyCaernarfonshire
PeriodPost Medieval
1. Penrhyn Castle, one of the most enormous houses in Britain, is an extensive fantasy castle by Thomas Hopper, largely built from the early 1820s to 1837 for George Hay Dawkins-Pennant. The castle climaxes in a vast Norman hall and an overbearing great tower, modelled on Heddingham Castle. A mansion is recorded here in the fourteenth century and licence to crenalate was obtained in the period 1410-1431. This house was swept away in about 1782 when a castellated Gothick style house was built. The hall of the 1782 house survives as the present drawing room.

The dauntingly fine masonry of the present structure rises sheer out of the woods, and the sombre walls meet the natural slopes like a medieval castle's. While the bulk of the work took some fifteen years from circa 1820, substantial dismantling and rearranging, using both existing stonework and new, continued in the 1840s?50s and after. Even within the main phase, the re-cladding of the Wyatt stableyard at the north with mock fourteenth century towers, as though it were defences for an outer bailey, followed the primary Neo-Romanesque domestic core.

Wyatt's version of the house proper vanished, apart from influencing the southern part of the corps de logis plan. The resulting skylines were surely designed to outpace other modern castle-making especially Rickman's -castellated scenery at Gwrych in Denbighshire, which was completed in 1816. The heroic mood suggests that Hopper and Dawkins-Pennant drew inspiration partly from ancient Mediterranean ruins (the latter's uncle James Dawkins led the expedition which rediscovered Balbec and Palmyra) as well as from the vocabulary of eleventh and twelfth century castles or churches.

Source: Haslam, Orbach and Voelcker (2009), The Buildings of Wales: Gwynedd. Pevsner Architectural Guide, page 398.

RCAHMW, October 2009

2. Royal Commission aerial photography on 20th July 2011 showed the feint parchmarks of a linear ditch running south from the projecting westward tower, turning a rounded corner and thence running east to intercept the main south-west tower of the castle. The ditch is currently of unknown date but may represent a lost enclosure which predates the construction of the castle.

T. Driver, RCAHMW, 2012.

The original manor house on this site dated to the early fifteenth century, a royal license granted in 1438 giving Sir Gwilym Gruffydd permission to crenellate the house and extend the building by adding a fortified tower. Described in a fifteenth century poem by Rhys Goch Eryri, this was a substantial property which was also recorded in drawings made by architect Samuel Wyatt before it was heavily replaced and modified with his designs for a Gothick mansion for the Penrhyn family in 1782. This scheme of work appears to have retained the basement vault, stair tower and great hall from the medieval plan, as well as mirroring the medieval style of the original building.

The present building was created by the architect Thomas Hopper between the years 1822 and 1837 for George Hay-Dawkins Pennant who had inherited the Penrhyn estate from his cousin, Richard Pennant. Pennant himself had married into the Penrhyn family and had subsequently made his fortune through slate quarrying industries in north Wales and slavery in Jamaica.

Unlike other architects of mock castles of the Romantic and early Victorian period, Hopper decided against the fashionable Gothic design and opted for a neo-Norman approach instead. His vision of a Norman style went beyond pure architecture, extending to the elaborate, decorative plasterwork employed throughout the library, great hall and staircases as well as the furniture. Unfortunately, George Hay-Dawkins Pennant lived for only three years after the completion of fifteen years of construction work at the castle.

In 1859, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert stayed the castle during one of their rare visits to Wales. The queen, however, refused to sleep in the large bespoke slate bed that the Penrhyn family had specifically commissioned for this occasion as it reminded her of a tomb. It was also during this time that the estate began to open its gates routinely to groups of paying tourists who were led through the stately rooms and large planned gardens by the housekeeper.

The last member of the Penrhyn family to live in the castle was Hugh Napier Douglas-Pennant, who died in 1949. The castle and gardens passed into ownership of the Treasury in 1951 and today belong to the National Trust. In addition to the surviving fine interior fittings and furniture, it houses one of the greatest art collections in Wales.

Record updated as part of the AHRC-funded project 'Journey to the Past: Wales in historic travel writing from France and Germany'.
R. Singer (Bangor University) and S. Fielding (RCAHMW), 2017.
application/mswordETW - European Travellers to Wales ProjectDigital archive coversheet relating to Penrhyn Castle Gigapan Project, carried out by Sue Fielding and Rita Singer, October 2017.
application/pdfAENT - Archaeological Reports/Evaluations (non Trust)Report entitled "Penrhyn Castle Historic Landscape Assessment" produced by Laura Gee and Kathy Laws, 1/1/2015.