Half UK Population Doesn't Know What Magna Carta Is

By Caroline Lewis | 12 March 2008
detail of a medieval handwritten document

Magna Carta is thought of as a cornerstone of British citizenship. © British Library

What is Magna Carta?

Is it:
(a) a menu of bottled Irish ciders
(b) an important medieval charter
(c) a Japanese cartoon strip
or (d) a member of a famous family of folk musicians?

If you answered anything other than (b), then you’re among nearly half of the UK population, going by the results of a new survey.

Commissioned by the British Library, the ‘You Gov’ poll found that 45 per cent of the UK population has no idea what Magna Carta is, or stands for.

Asked to describe what the Magna Carta is and what it did, fewer than one in three (32 per cent) were able to state that the 13th century charter set limits on the authority of the monarch.

The over-55 age group did best, with 63 per cent knowing it is a medieval charter and 37 per cent identifying that it restricted the power of the monarch. However, only 39 per cent of 18-24 year olds got the first question right, and 71 per cent did not know it related to the powers of the monarch.

detail of a medieval handwritten document

The new website will dispel myths about the charter and map out its origins with a timeline. © British Library

The British Library initiated the survey prior to launching its new Magna Carta website on Thursday March 13, which explores the origins and significance of the charter, and allows visitors to see the medieval Latin document close up, alongside an English translation.

"Magna Carta is one of the most celebrated manuscripts in English history and the most famous document in the British Library,” said Claire Breay, Head of Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts. “Many misconceptions about its original purpose and content have been generated since it was granted in 1215. Our new website challenges these misconceptions by exploring Magna Carta's meaning, content and legacy."

Magna Carta is often thought of as the cornerstone of liberty, but 23 per cent of those surveyed had no idea of the importance of the iconic document and another 23 per cent incorrectly thought that it stated that everyone was equal before the law.

The Magna Carta applied only to England, but 19 per cent thought the document meant the same laws applied throughout the UK.

The charter actually contains few statements of legal principle and very little of it deals directly with the villeins – the unfree peasantry – who formed the majority of the population. It failed to secure lasting peace in 1215 and only three clauses are still valid today, but the longevity and adaptability of a few key clauses have secured its iconic status. Above all, it established the critical principle that the king, like his people, was subject to the law.

a large and dense medieval handwritten document

© British Library

A new exhibition will open at the British Library in October 2008 on British political citizenship and rights.

The survey and exhibition come at a pertinent time, when new measures are being proposed by the government to strengthen the significance of British citizenship, such as schoolchildren pledging their allegiance to the Queen.

Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, Jack Straw MP, was pragmatic about the findings of the poll.

"If you asked an American if they had heard of their Bill of Rights, I expect they’d tell you it was a trick question,” he said. “Such is the enormous iconic value of one of their cornerstone constitutional documents. In contrast, many British people struggle to put their finger on one of our own defining documents, Magna Carta.”

“In Britain we have an innate sense of rights, but they have existed more in hearts and minds and habits than in explicit understanding. The challenge for today is to look for a new expression of our rights, and the responsibilities that go with them, which is relevant for the 21st century.”

“Magna Carta remains an epochal moment in British history, with a resonance that still lasts today,” he continued. “I hope that our proposed new British Bill of Rights and Responsibilities will in time become as deeply engrained in our culture as its equivalent on the other side of the Atlantic."

Taking Liberties: The Struggle for British Freedoms and Rights at the British Library will open on October 31 2008 and run until March 1 2009.

The total sample size of the YouGov survey, carried out online, was 2,073 adults. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all adults (aged 18-plus) in Great Britain.

Magna Carta is an Icon of England - see www.icons.org.uk.

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