Richard Harris Barham was born at Canterbury. At seven years of age he lost his father, who left him a small estate, part of which was the manor of Tappington, so frequently mentioned in the Legends. At nine he was sent to St Paul's School, but his studies were interrupted by an accident which shattered his arm and partially crippled it for life. Thus deprived of the power of bodily activity, he became a great reader and diligent student.
In 1807 he entered Brasenose College, Oxford, intending at first to study for the profession of the law. Circumstances, however, induced him to change his mind and to enter the church. In 1813 he was ordained and took a country curacy; he married in the following year, and in 1821 moved to London on obtaining the appointment of minor canon of St. Paul's Cathedral where he served as Cardinal. Three years later he became one of the priests in ordinary of the King's Chapel Royal, and was appointed to a city living. In 1826 he first contributed to Blackwood's Magazine; and on the establishment of Bentley's Miscellany in 1837 he began to furnish the series of grotesque metrical tales known as The Ingoldsby Legends. These became very popular, were published in a collected form and have since passed through numerous editions. In variety and whimsicality of rhymes these verses have hardly a rival since the days of Hudibras. But beneath this obvious popular quality there lies a store of solid antiquarian learning, the fruit of patient enthusiastic research, in out-of-the-way old books, which few readers who laugh over his pages detect. (Some of the 'legends' are in prose. There is also a collection of Barham's miscellaneous poems, edited posthumously by his son, called The Ingoldsby Lyrics.)
His life was grave, dignified and highly honoured. His sound judgment and his kind heart made him the trusted counsellor, the valued friend and the frequent peacemaker; and he was intolerant of all that was mean and base and false. In politics he was a Tory of the old school; yet he was the lifelong friend of the liberal Sydney Smith, whom in many respects he singularly resembled. Theodore Hook was one of his most intimate friends. Barham was a contributor to the Edinburgh Review and the Literary Gazette; he wrote articles for Gorton's Biographical Dictionary; and a novel, My Cousin Nicholas (1834). He retained vigour and freshness of heart and mind to the last, and his last verses ("As I laye a-thynkynge") show no signs of decay. He died in London after a long, painful illness, on June 17, 1845.
One of Richard Barham's descendants is the British author Guy Walters.