Locke was born at Wrington, a village in Somersetshire, on 29 August, 1632. He was the son of a country solicitor and small landowner who, when the civil war broke out, served as a captain of horse in the parliamentary army. “I no sooner perceived myself in the world than I found myself in a storm,” he wrote long afterwards, during the lull in the storm which followed the king’s return. But political unrest does not seem to have seriously disturbed the course of his education. He entered Westminster school in 1646, and passed to Christ Church, Oxford, as a junior student, in 1652; and he had a home there (though absent from it for long periods) for more than thirty years—till deprived of his studentship by royal mandate in 1684. The official studies of the university were uncongenial to him; he would have preferred to have learned philosophy from Descartes instead of from Aristotle; but, evidently, he satisfied the authorities, for he was elected to a senior studentship in 1659, and, in the three or four years following, he took part in the tutorial work of the college. At one time, he seems to have thought of the clerical profession as a possible career; but he declined an offer of preferment in 1666, and, in the same year, obtained a dispensation which enabled him to hold his studentship without taking orders. About the same time, we hear of his interest in experimental science, and he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1668. Little is known of his early medical studies. He cannot have followed the regular course, for he was unable to obtain the degree of doctor of medicine. It was not till 1674 that he graduated as bachelor of medicine. In the following January, his position in Christ Church was regularised by his appointment to one of the two medical studentships of the college.
His knowledge of medicine and occasional practice of the art led, in 1666, to an acquaintance with lord Ashley (afterwards, from 1672, earl of Shaftesbury). The acquaintance, begun accidentally, had an immediate effect on Locke’s career. Without severing his connection with Oxford, he became a member of Shaftesbury’s household, and seems soon to have been looked upon as indispensable in all matters domestic and political. He saved the statesman’s life by a skilful operation, arranged a suitable marriage for his heir, attended the lady in her confinement, and directed the nursing and education of her son—afterwards famous as the author of Characteristics. He assisted Shaftesbury, also, in public business, commercial and political, and followed him into the government service. When Shaftesbury was made lord chancellor in 1672, Locke became his secretary for presentation to benefices, and, in the following year, was made secretary to the board of trade. In 1675, his official life came to an end, for the time, with the fall of his chief.
Locke’s health, always delicate, suffered from the London climate. When released from the cares of office, he left England in search of health. Ten years earlier, he had had his first experience of foreign travel, and of public employment, as secretary to Sir Walter Vane, ambassador to the elector of Brandenburg during the first Dutch war. On his return to England, early in 1666, he declined an offer of further service in Spain, and settled again in Oxford, but was soon induced by Shaftesbury to spend a great part of his time in London. On his release from office, in 1675, he sought milder air in the south of France, made leisurely journeys, and settled down for many months at Montpellier. The journal which he kept at this period is full of minute descriptions of places and customs and institutions. It contains, also, a record of many of the reflections that afterwards took shape in the Essay concerning Human Understanding. He returned to England in 1679, when his patron had again a short spell of office. He does not seem to have been concerned in Shaftesbury’s later schemes; but suspicion naturally fell upon him, and he found it prudent to take refuge in Holland. This he did in August, 1683, less than a year after the flight and death of Shaftesbury. Even in Holland, for some time, he was not safe from danger of arrest at the instance of the English government; he moved from town to town, lived under an assumed name and visited his friends by stealth. His residence in Holland brought political occupations with it, among the men who were preparing the English revolution. It had at least equal value in the leisure which it gave him for literary work, and in the friendships which it offered. In particular, he formed a close intimacy with Philip van Limborch, the leader of the Remonstrant clergy, and the scholar and liberal theologian to whom Epistola de Tolerantia was dedicated. This letter was completed in 1685, though not published at the time; and, before he left for England, in February, 1689, the Essay concerning Human Understanding seems to have attained its final form, and an abstract of it was published in Leclerc’s Bibliothèque universelle in 1688.
The new government recognised his services to the cause of freedom by the offer of the post of ambassador either at Berlin or at Vienna. But Locke was no place hunter; he was solicitous, also, on account of his health; his earlier experience of Germany led him to fear the “cold air” and “warm drinking”; and the high office was declined. But he served less important offices at home. He was made commissioner of appeals in May, 1689, and, from 1696 to 1700, he was a commissioner of trade and plantations at a salary of £1000 a year. Although official duties called him to town for protracted periods, he was able to fix his residence in the country. In 1691, he was persuaded to make his permanent home at Oates in Essex, in the house of Sir Francis and lady Masham. Lady Masham was a daughter of Cudworth, the Cambridge Platonist; Locke had manifested a growing sympathy with his type of liberal theology; intellectual affinity increased his friendship with the family at Oates; and he continued to live with them till his death on 28 October, 1704.