Birstye, or, as it is often wrongly spelt, Burstye, is one of the oldest settlements which is known to us in the history of Ardingly.
For three hundred years it has been falling from its highest status but for four hundred years previously it had been the home of a well-known family and a rival of the old Wakehurst, which disappeared in Elizabeth’s reign. It must be remembered that we are not referring to the actual building now existing but to the site of human habitation.
The name comes from birch trees, which in Saxon fashion forms its plural as “birchen” in the same way as we still say “ox, oxen”, and “chick, chicken”. The place gave its name to the family that lived there, which was one of the commonest ways in which surnames arose. One of the earliest mentions of the name is in 1287, when a dispute is recorded in the Assize Roll for Sussex in which William, son of David de Byrchenestye appears. The name goes through many varieties of spelling during four centuries, and finally in 1614 we find John Birstie leaving his house called Birchanstie als Birstie to his son Thomas, who in 1631 sold it to John Seyliard. Thus ended the connection of the family with the place from which it took its name. The family was of considerable importance, and was entitled to a coat of arms. One member of it was sergeant or, as we should call it, agent to Queen Anne of Cleves, and had the charge of the wide estates which formed her dowry when she was divorced from Henry VIII.
Many of us remember the splendid stone tithe barn belonging to Birstye which was pulled down in the early years of the 20th century and was re-erected as a chapel in Buxshalls grounds. It should be recorded that there is an inscription on one of the stones which has been built in sideways about two feet from the ground.
Birstye belongs to the Manor of Walstead, which is a sub-division of the great Saxon manor of South Malling.
Among the fields belonging to Birstye we find in a deed of 1610 the names of, the Mote and the Rotingham. It is possible that the first refers to a moat no longer in existence. Water may have stood at the foot of a low cliff of rock to the west of the house. But we have also to consider whether the name “Mote” may not represent the ancient meeting place of the Hundred, the Moot where the responsible people of the district met to administer the local laws. The existence of these Hundred Courts can be traced back to time of the Saxon kings, and their origin lies in the ages before the Saxons settled in England. Ardingly was in the Hundred of Strete, otherwise Street, up till 17th century, when it was transferred to Butting Hill the convenience of administration.
The meeting place of the Hundred of Strete has never been identified, though the Butting Hill which gave its name to the neighbouring Hundred is well known – a small hillock by Stone Pound Crossways, near Hassocks. The Hundred and Manor of Strete ran from the Downs in the parish of Strete right up into the forest of Worth, and included West Hoathly, so that Birstye would be a central spot. The magnificent position commanding the valley of the Ouse is another point in considering what is, after all, only a conjecture hanging upon the name of a field, the Mote.