Bulwer was the second son of General William Bulwer and his wife, Elizabeth Barbara née Lytton and an elder brother of Edward Bulwer (later Bulwer-Lytton). He was educated at Harrow School, Trinity College and then the recently founded Downing College, both at Cambridge. After graduating and touring the continent, he joined the Life Guards in 1824 and exchanged to the 58th Regiment of Foot two years later. After having unsuccessfully contested Hertford in 1826, he joined the Diplomatic Service in 1827 and was sent to Berlin in August that year, to Vienna in April 1829 and then to The Hague in April 1830.
In July 1830, Bulwer entered the Commons as MP for the rotten borough of Wilton and was sent to Brussels the following month to report on the Belgian Revolution. A year later, he was returned for Coventry, again in 1833, then for Marylebone in 1835. That year, Bulwer planned to join General Evans, who was raising a legion to help Isabella II of Spain in the First Carlist War, but was instead sent back to the newly-independent Belgium as secretary of legation. When a general election was called two years later on the death of William IV, Bulwer decided not to contest his current seat for Marylebone and after having commuted between Parliament and his diplomatics posts for seven years, decided to become a full-time diplomat and was sent to Constantinople.
A year later, Bulwer was due to go to St Petersburg after accepting a new post there, but caught a fever just before leaving Constantinople and instead went back to London. Upon his arrival, the government was embroiled in the Bedchamber Crisis and because of the delays involved, Bulwer did not take up his post in Russia and was instead sent to Paris in June 1839.
After having dealt with the poor Anglo-French relations prior to the London Straits Convention, Bulwer was sent to Madrid in November 1843 and served there until Narváez instructed him to leave in 1848, after being accused of implicating liberal risings against the former's conservative government. By now a diplomatic embarrassment in Europe, the British government formally showed its support of Bulwer by making him a KCB that year, but sent him far from Europe, to Washington a year later. A year earlier, he had married Hon Georgiana Wellesley at Hatfield House; she was the youngest daughter of the 1st Baron Cowley and a niece of the Duke of Wellington.
Bulwer enjoyed his three years in America, having been promoted to GCB during his office, but wished to return to Europe and so was posted to Florence in 1852. His two years in Italy were largely uneventful and ill health forced him back to London in 1854. He was granted a pension a year later and at was at this time that he and his wife separated. When his health improved, Bulwer was in Eastern Europe from 1856-58, where he took part in the uniting of the provinces of Moldavia and Wallachia to form Romania. In 1858, he succeeded Lord Stratford de Redcliffe as Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire and his wife joined him. This was his final diplomatic post before his semi-retirement in 1865.
On his return to England, Bulwer went back to politics and successfully contested Tamworth in 1868. He returned to literature after his retirement and was also raised to the Peerage as Baron Dalling and Bulwer, of Dalling, co. Norfolk. On his return from a trip to Egypt in 1872, Bulwer died suddenly in Naples. His estranged wife had no children, his title became extinct and his will was valued at less than £5,000.