Oliver Cromwell was born on the 25th of April, 1599, in Huntington, England. He was the fifth and only surviving son of Robert Cromwell and Elizabeth Steward, who came from respectable though not noble families. His Protestant parents educated Cromwell at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, a center of Calvinist theology. Cromwell married Elizabeth Bourchier in 1620 and for the next few years concerned himself primarily with managing their small estate.
In 1628 he was sent to parliament to represent Huntington; he spoke out in support of Puritan doctrine. However, in 1629 King Charles I dissolved the assembly and parliament did not meet for another 11 years.
Cromwell was elected to the new parliament in 1640, having acquired, like many landowners and religious conservatives, numerous grievances during the interval. The Puritans believed that "the individual Christian could establish direct contact with God through prayer and that the principal duty of the clergy was to inspire the laity by preaching." This placed them in direct opposition to the Church of England hierarchy, as well as to the King himself. (King Charles was also head of the English church and was married to a Roman Catholic.)
To make a complicated story short, various economic, political, and religious tensions escalated to the point where civil war was unavoidable. Cromwell distinguished himself as an organizer and a strategist, rising to command the Puritan "Roundhead" forces in opposition to the Royalist "Cavaliers." All the king's horses and all the king's men couldn't win against Oliver's army, and negotiations between the King and the Puritan-led Parliament inevitably failed. (Among other problems, King Charles considered himself a monarch by divine right, and was unwilling to give up any of his power; the Puritans had different ideas about just what God had in mind for England.)
The whole mess came to a head in 1648 after the king escaped from captivity and sought help from the Irish. He was recaptured, tried, and sentenced to death. Cromwell is reputed to have said of the trial, "I tell you, we will cut off his head with the crown upon it." Cromwell signed the death warrant and Charles was beheaded on January 30, 1649.
Cromwell proceeded to root out royalist sentiment throughout the British Isles and even led an army to Scotland, where Charles II had been named the new king. (Cromwell's other acts included sending English settlers to take over lands in northern Ireland, a policy with far-reaching consequences.) Named Lord Protector of the Commonwealth in 1653, Cromwell assembled a parliament and began the business of governing. He was offered the crown, but refused it, preferring the hereditary protectorship. However, parliament proved no more tractable under a Puritan protector than it had been under a divinely ordained king, and Cromwell had difficulty establishing effective authority. In 1658 he caught malaria and died on September 3, saying, "I am safe, for I know that I was once in grace."
Oliver Cromwell's son Richard proved less capable than his father and could not keep the government together. In 1660 the monarchy was restored and King Charles II, second son of Charles I, ascended the throne.
Unlike most famous generals, Oliver Cromwell did not end his career at his death. His body was embalmed and secretly interred in Westminster Abbey on November 10, 1658, two weeks before his official funeral (which cost 60,000 pounds -- an enormous sum).
But his eternal rest didn't last long. On January 30, 1661, the anniversary of the execution of Charles I, Cromwell's body was exhumed and taken by sledge to Tyburn. The procession was greeted by the sounds of "the universal outcry and curses of the people." The corpse was hanged from the gallows for a day and at evening the body was buried beneath the gibbet. The head was taken to Westminster Hall, where it was exhibited on a pole until some time near the end of Charles II's reign in 1685.
The fate of Cromwell's head is unclear. However, most of the Lord Protector probably still lies somewhere under what is now Connaught Square.