He was born at Dinton in Wiltshire, and received his musical education from John Cooper, better known under his Italian pseudonym Giovanni Coperario, a famous composer of the day. In 1626, Lawes was received as one of the gentlemen of the chapel royal, and held the position until the Commonwealth put a stop to church music. Nevertheless Lawes continued his work as a composer, and the famous collection of his vocal pieces, Ayres and Dialogues for One, Two and Three Voyces, was published in 1653 and followed by two other books under the same title in 1655 and 1658 respectively. On the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, Lawes returned to the royal chapel, and composed an anthem for the coronation of King Charles II. He was buried in Westminster Abbey.
Lawes's name has become known beyond musical circles because of his friendship with John Milton, for whose masque, Comus, he supplied the incidental music for the first performance in 1634. The poet in return immortalized his friend in a famous sonnet in which Milton, with a musical perception not common amongst poets, describes the great merit of Lawes. His careful attention to the words of the poet, the manner in which his music seems to grow from those words, the perfect coincidence of the musical with the metrical accent, cause Lawes's songs to be regarded by some as on a level with those of Robert Schumann or Franz Liszt. At the same time he is not lacking in genuine melodic invention, and his concerted music shows skilled use of counterpoint.
Henry Lawes was the brother of William Lawes, also a composer.