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If there's one thing the British have in abundance, it's history. Not to mention TV dramas based on their history.

It's therefore something of a shock to discover that 23 per cent of respondents to a recent survey thought Winston Churchill was a fictional character while 58 per cent thought Sherlock Holmes had been a real person.

The survey, commissioned by British cable channel UKTV Gold, polled 3,000 adults and came up with some surprising results on the nation's perception of its past.

Forty-seven per cent of Britons thought the 12th-century Crusader king, Richard the Lionheart, was a mythical figure - exactly the same percentage who thought Eleanor Rigby of the eponymous Beatles song was a flesh-and-blood person.

The study noted a marked change in how people acquire their historical knowledge. Fully 77 per cent admitted to no longer reading history books. Three out of five people said they never watched historical programs on television and 15 per cent said they rely solely on the history they learned at school.

Which meant a lot of them weren't paying attention when they were being taught about the Crimean War, because 23 per cent thought nursing pioneer Florence Nightingale was a figment of some writer's imagination. And in an odd twist, 3 per cent thought one of Britain's greatest writers of fiction - Charles Dickens - was fictional himself.

Other fictional characters that respondents thought were real people included intrepid pilot Biggles of the adventure books for boys (33 per cent), the Three Musketeers (17 per cent) and Robinson Crusoe (5 per cent).

Reality check

These are the Top 10 historical figures that respondents to the survey thought were fictional.

1. Richard the Lionheart (47 per cent).

2. Winston Churchill (23 per cent).

3. Florence Nightingale (23 per cent).

4. Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery (6 per cent).

5. Boudicca, queen of the Iceni people of eastern Britain who led an uprising against the occupying Romans (5 per cent).

6. Sir Walter Raleigh (4 per cent).

7. Duke of Wellington, leader of the British forces that battled Napoleon at Waterloo (4 per cent).

8. Cleopatra (4 per cent).

9. Mahatma Gandhi (3 per cent).

10. Charles Dickens (3 per cent).

Source: 72 Point

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