He was born in London, his parents being Revd Cornelius Neale and Susanna Neale, daughter of John Mason Good. He was educated at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he was affected by the Oxford Movement and helped to found the Cambridge Camden Society (afterwards known as the Ecclesiological Society). Though he took orders in 1841, ill-health prevented his settling in England until 1846, when he became warden of Sackville College, an alms-house at East Grinstead, an appointment which he held till his death.
In 1854 Neale co-founded the Society of Saint Margaret, an order of women in the Anglican Church dedicated to nursing the sick. Many Anglicans in his day, however, were very suspicious of anything suggestive of Roman Catholicism. Only nine years earlier, John Henry Newman had encouraged Catholic practices in the Anglican Church, and had ended up joining the the Catholic Church himself. This encouraged the suspicion that anyone like Neale was an agent of the Vatican, assigned to destroy the Anglican Church by subverting it from within. Once Neale was attacked and mauled at a funeral of one of the Sisters. From time to time unruly crowds threatened to stone him or to burn his house. He received no honour or preferment in England, and his doctorate was bestowed by Trinity College (Connecticut). However, his basic goodness eventually won the confidence of many who had fiercely opposed him, and the Sisterhood of St. Margaret survived and prospered.
Neale was strongly high church in his sympathies, and had to endure a good deal of opposition, including a fourteen years' inhibition by his bishop. Neale translated the Eastern liturgies into English, and wrote a mystical and devotional commentary on the Psalms. However, he is best known as a hymn writer and, especially, translator, having enriched English hymnody with many ancient and mediaeval hymns translated from Latin and Greek. More than anyone else, he made English-speaking congregations aware of the centuries-old tradition of Latin, Greek, Russian, and Syrian hymns. His translations include:
Neale's most enduring and widely known legacy is probably his contribution to the Christmas repertoire, most notably "Good Christian Men, Rejoice" and his original legendary Boxing Day carol, "Good King Wenceslas". He was also responsible for much of the translation of the Advent hymn "O come, O come, Emmanuel", based on the "O Antiphons" for the week preceding Christmas, and his song "A Great and Mighty Wonder".
Neale also published An Introduction to the History of the Holy Eastern Church (1850, 2 vols); History of the so-called Jansenist Church of Holland (1858); Essays on Liturgiology and Church History (1863); and many other works.
Since Neale died on the Festival of the Transfiguration, he is commemorated by the Anglican churches on the following day, August 7. He is also commemorated in the Calendar of Saints of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America as a hymnwriter on July 1 with Catherine Winkworth.
For a complete list of Neale's works see article in Dictionary of National Biography xl. 145.