Matthew Prior was the son of George Prior (d. c.1675), a London joiner, and Elizabeth, née Pennefather. The only child of six to survive infancy, he was sent to Westminster School, under the tutelage of Dr. Richard Busby. At the age of eleven, Prior's father died, and he was forced to leave the school to work at his uncle's tavern, The Rhenish, on Channel Row. There, working behind the bar and reading Horace, Prior impressed the passing Charles Sackville, 6th Earl of Dorset, by turning a Horatian ode into English with particular facility. The Earl of Dorset offered to pay the remainder of Prior's tuition to return to Westminster School, where he returned to be made a King's Scholar in 1681.
In 1683, the poet received one of the first five Duchess of Somerset scholarships to St. John's College, Cambridge, where he spent the next four years, writing more than thirty Latin pieces as well as poems in English, including, in collaboration with his childhood friend from Westminster, Charles Montagu, 1st Earl of Halifax, The City Mouse and Country Mouse, a ridicule of John Dryden's The Hind and the Panther.
On leaving St. John's, Prior became secretary to the embassy at the Hague, and after four years in this post, was appointed a gentleman of the King's bedchamber. A year later he was sent to Paris to assist the English ambassador. By 1700 he had returned to London, and in 1701 sat in Parliament for East Grinstead. It was on Queen Anne's accession that Prior became politically successful as a Tory - until her death in 1715 he held a prominent place in all negotiations with the French court, including the Treaty of Utrecht, dubbed 'Matt's Peace'. Following the Whig's return to power he was impeached by Robert Walpole and kept in close custody for two years until 1717. During his imprisonment he wrote his most ambitious work, Solomon, and other Poems on several Occasions, published by subscription in 1718. He received for this a present of 4,000 guineas from Lord Harley, enabling him to live in comfort as a recluse to the end of his days. He died at Wimpole, Cambridgeshire, in 1721, and was buried in Westminster Abbey, in Poets' Corner.