The first mention in history of the fief of La Geneste in Châteaufort appears in 1339. At that period, it was the property of a couple of Parisian burghers, Jacques Lenormand and Jacqueline Lemire.
Through a process of sale and inheritance, aveu, oath of fealty and seizure, over the years the fief changed hands many times over, passing through the hands of more than sixty different owners in total, over close on seven centuries.
Under seigniorial law, the aveu was a written document a vassal was required to place in the hands of his liege lord when entering upon possession of a fief. Swearing fealty was the act of publicly establishing or renewing a feudal link between two families. This system was to persist until the French Revolution.
These notarised deeds tell us that at the end of 1554, La Geneste already had a watermill and a dovecote, as well as a wooden windmill (destroyed in 1568). The first fortress was probably built at this period.
In 1614, Seigneur Philippe de Parent had the chateau rebuilt using stones from the ruins of the former mediaeval keep of Marly that once stood on the ridge of Châteaufort, close to where the present church now stands.
Classical in style, it is a symmetrical two-storey building plus basement. At the rear, the chateau is flanked by a pepper-pot tower and a square tower with a pepper-pot roof and bell turret.
Its 18 rooms, 1,000 m2 of floor space and 150 m2 banqueting hall are available for events of all kinds.
In a footnote to history, on 8 July 1726, Jean Bignon, baker of La Trinité, was wounded by shotgun blast during the feudal seizure of the Domaine de la Geneste, but the incident, no doubt minor, was settled amicably.
On 31 January 1786, a deed of sale described the property in these terms: « Partially rebuilt chateau, large courtyard, cow byre, stables, barn, sheepfold, pigsty, hen house and garden. »
The present chateau dates from 1857. It was built by a Monsieur Stenhover, with the aid of architect Eugène Petit. The service quarters were remodelled and the old chateau demolished.
In 1889, the property was purchased by a certain Monsieur Quesnel. In 1913, he allowed the estate to be used for an extraordinary exploit never before accomplished: the first ever parachute jump abandoning an aircraft in flight.
On 19 August 1913, Célestin Adolphe Pégoud, a young and as yet unknown aviator, offered to test a new parachute system developed by inventor Frédéric Bonnet, over the airfield at Châteaufort. Just as the plane was about to take off, the local gendarmerie, on the orders of the Prefect of the Seine, expressed its formal opposition to the scheme, deeming it far too dangerous.
Most unexpectedly, Monsieur Quesnel took a hand in the negotiations, offering to allow the test flight to take place over his property, even at the risk of damage to his chateau when the airplane crash-landed. For want of further arguments, the gendarmes finally allowed Pégoud to take off.
And so it was that the young aviator, caught on film by the Pathé cameras and watched by large crowds, made history by abandoning his aircraft at an altitude of just 250 m. Left to its own devices, the aircraft – an old Blériot XI withdrawn from service – performed a series of arabesques in the sky, seemingly in an attempt to stave off the moment of its inevitable fall to earth.
Pégoud landed safely and told the waiting journalists, « I saw the plane loop the loop (the name of a fairground attraction of the day), all by itself. So you see it can be done. And I’m going to be the one to try it! »
Some ten days later, over Juvisy-sur-Orge (91), he became the first pilot to flip his aircraft over and fly « upside down » over a distance of 400 metres. Later, on 21 September 1913, he performed the first deliberate loop in aviation history over Buc (78). The art of aerobatics was born and Pégoud became a household name, giving demonstrations all over Europe!
His experiments went far beyond the sphere of simple aerobatics, however, and had a direct and crucial influence on French supremacy in aerial combat during the First World War that was to break out only a few years later.
© Pascal Bouchain (Châteaufort).