He was born in Marlborough, Wiltshire, and attended Eton College and Trinity College, Cambridge, and joined the diplomatic service in 1952. He joined the Conservative Party in 1966. He was secretary to Edward Heath, and was then elected to Parliament in 1974. He entered government during the Thatcher administration, and was propelled by a series of resignations into the position of Home Secretary in 1985 and then Foreign Secretary in 1989.
After Thatcher withdrew from the 1990 Conservative Party leadership elections, he was nominated as leader, but was beaten by John Major. He continued to serve in Major's cabinet, until his retirement as a minister in 1995. He did not stand for Parliament in the 1997 general elections.
He was created Baron Hurd of of Westwell in 1997, and remains active, supporting the pro-European wing of the Conservative party, supporting Kenneth Clarke and often criticising the leadership.