He was born in Rouen, France, and died in England. He served as a court musician to King Henry II of France in France (listed as the royal flutist on the Chantres et autres Jouers d'instruments for 1559-60). During the Protestant persecutions in France, the Lanier family fled as Huguenots to England. It is said that safe passage was arranged by Queen Catherine de' Medici. Nicholas arrived in 1561 and settled in St. Olave Parish, Hart Street, London. After arrival in England he served in the court of Queen Elizabeth I of England, reported first in 1561. The name of Lanier's first wife is unknown (he married her some time before 1565), but following the custom that at court, marriages were arranged or at least approved by the Queen. Nicholas Lanier was paired with Lucretia Bassano, daughter of the Italian musician Anthony Bassano. The couple prospered, acquiring a great deal of property in East Greenwich, Blackheath, and nearby. Their home was reportedly fitted up with a theatre. Nicholas Lanier was appointed Musician of the Flutes in 1604. He served Henry II of France and Elizabeth I and James I of England. Three generations of this remarkable family served British royalty as court musicians, poets and artists; their efforts are well-documented and their efforts were well-rewarded.
As noted, Nicholas Lanier's first wife's name is unknown, however, they did have two, or possibly three children, of whom one was John Lanier, father of the artist-musician Nicholas Lanier, the most famous of the Laniers. With Lucretia Bassano, he had nine children, including the musicians Alphonso, Innocent, Jerome Lanier, Clement Lanier and Andrea, and Ellen Lanier, who married Alphonse Ferrabosco II. After his death, Andrea succeeded him as Musician of the Flutes for life.