Edmund was the eldest son of John Spenser, a Lancastrian gentleman by birth who had become a journeyman of the Merchant Taylors' Company. Spencer attended the recently-founded Merchant Taylors' School and then went to Pembroke Hall in Cambridge. While still at university he wrote some verses in the style of Petrarch and Du Bellay, and these were published in van der Noodt's "Theatre for Worldlings". On leaving Cambridge, Spenser became secretary to John Young, the bishop of Rochester. In 1579 he obtained a place in the Earl of Leicester's household where he made friends with the Earl's nephew, Philip Sidney. He wrote the Shepheardes Calender at this time. The following year he began work on The Faerie Queene though he published none of it until 1589 when he entrusted the first three books to his London publisher, Ponsonby. He also married his first wife, Machabyas Chylde, at about this time. In 1580 Spenser was appointed secretary to Lord Grey of Wilton and attended him on his trip to Ireland. Spenser returned to settle in Ireland in 1591 and wrote Colin Clouts in this year. He became a landowner and returned to London only to supervise the publication of his poetry. He married again to Elizabeth Boyle in 1594 and his poems Amoretti and Epithalamion celebrate the wooing and marriage.
During a local insurrection in 1598, Spenser's home Kilcoman Castle was burnt and Spenser had to flee to Cork along with his wife and children. It is feared that some of his work was lost during this fire. Spenser died in London, in some distress.