As I have previously suggested in these pages, there was rather more to Wantage’s very own Anglo-Saxon monarch than a reputation for criminal absent-mindedness in the kitchen.

A new year-long exhibition at the Vale and Downland Museum, in the town of Alfred the Great’s birth, explores his remarkable life, its national importance and its local influence down the centuries.

The museum’s curator, Ruth Howard, and her volunteers have taken, as the basis of the exhibition, panels from a display at Winchester Discovery Centre — Alfred died at Winchester in 899 AD, aged 50 — and have supplemented these with objects specific to the Wantage area, with the intention of giving the visitor an understanding of the Anglo-Saxon culture into which the future King of Wessex was born.

The jewellery, which includes some lovely glass beads from Ducklington, and the more hard-wearing pieces of clothing, such as buckles, give us some idea of the colours, materials and craftsmanship typical of the sixth to ninth centuries.

They also provide clues to the status of the wearer, through the degree of ornateness of the decoration, and to the forms of belief held by him or her. The beaver tooth pendant on display, for instance, is thought to have been worn for luck or protection.

Beaver teeth have been found in the graves of children and teenagers of the time — the European beaver, of course, being a native of Britain before hunting made it extinct. Magical properties were also ascribed to amber beads like the ones on show.

Anglo-Saxon ‘chatelaine’ objects — the indispensable small items that hung from the belt or brooch of the woman of the house in the days before she could stuff them all into a capacious handbag — have also emerged from local excavations. The display includes a tiny padlock, from Didcot, and minute tweezers.

Ther is also the major part of a large carved bone comb, found at Wallingford, and man enough, one feels, to seek out and destroy even the heaviest infestations of medieval lice and fleas.

The sort of footwear which Alfred would have worn can be seen too, in the form of a leather turnshoe from 9th century Oxford. The boot was sewn up and then turned inside out to avoid the exposure of stitching to wear and weather which would shorten its life.

Part of the exhibition, naturally, is devoted to Alfred’s prowess on the battlefield, defending the kingdom of Wessex — whose crown he inherited from his brother Ethelred in 871 — against repeated takeover bids from Danish Vikings.

Although few objects survive to tell the tale of his military campaigns in the Vale of White Horse, excavations of an Anglo-Saxon cemetery at Watchfield, near Shrivenham, have uncovered weapons from the previous century, displayed here, resembling those which Alfred used.

They include spearheads and iron shield bosses that retain fragments of the less durable materials employed in the weapons’ construction, such as timber, which shed light on their origins. The legends that grew out of Alfred’s extraordinary success in war get a mention. There is a nice sketch of the Twelfth Night cake-burning incident in 878, with the king, oblivious to domestic duty, deep in thought about how to defeat Guthrum the Dane, and his plainly horrified Somerset hostess shrieking at him in the background.

Visitors can also see photographs of the ‘blowing stone’, through which Alfred is said to have summoned his troops to battle at Ashdown in 871, his brother having left him to it and gone off to pray.

Alfred’s importance to England’s development as a nation was not only military and political — and naval, since he designed new longships and founded England’s navy — but, as Bishop Asser, his first biographer, recorded, he was deeply interested in the promotion of high standards of learning in the church and amongst his nobles.

He translated Latin texts into Old English in the hope that his subjects might benefit from the wisdom they contained and live more peacefully and prosperously.

His own impulse to literacy is said to have come from his mother, who promised to give the book she was reading to him and his brother to whichever of them learnt to read it first. The exhibition has examples of the writing materials Anglo-Saxons used, such as wax tablets and styli, goose quills, and oak galls, which were mixed with carbon or iron extracts to make a light-sensitive ink.

There are photographs of the beautiful objects thought to be pointers — aestels in the language of the day — which would have helped the Anglo-Saxon manuscript reader to keep his place.

The museum owns a replica of one of these: the well-known ‘Alfred Jewel’, so called because of the inscription attributing its manufacture to his command. Many readers will have seen the original in Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum.

Made of gold and enamel, it has a facing of bluish green rock crystal — a stone regarded as having particular purity, which made it appropriate to the supposed subject of its decoration, the head of Jesus.

Alfred was an enthusiastic patron of artists and craftsmen, whom he valued so highly that he spent a sizeable amount of his income supporting their production of gold and silver work.

The town of Wantage, (part of the estate which Alfred left to his wife Ealhswith), has taken huge pride in its association with the only English king to earn the sobriquet ‘Great’.

The exhibition houses a collection of local product packaging which makes the most of this, including ‘Alfie’s Beer’ from Best Mates Brewery, and Wessex Blue Flour from Clarks of Wantage Ltd.

In the same display case is a musical score, The King Alfred Polka, composed by Frederick James Painton ‘on the erection of the monument at Wantage’.

This monument was the famous statue of the king raised in the Market Place on July 14, 1877 and unveiled by his distant descendant the Prince of Wales, later Edward VII. On the plinth are these words, which sum up the immense achievements of Alfred’s reign: Alfred found learning dead and he restored it, education neglected and he revived it, the laws powerless and he gave them force, the church debased and he raised it, the land ravaged by a fearful enemy from which he delivered it.

Alfred’s name shall live as long as mankind shall respect the past.

Alfred the Great: Warrior, Visionary, Leader runs until October 30, 2010 at the Vale and Downland Museum, 19 Church Street, Wantage, Oxon. OX12 8BL. Call 01235 771447.Open Monday to Sat 10am-4 pm(Closed Sundays and Bank Holidays) Admission: Adults £2.50, Concs £2, Young people aged four-25 in full-time education, £1.