He was born in Putney, near London, England into a relatively well-to-do but not wealthy country family. His family had an estate in Hampshire. He was an only child, and after his mother died while he was 10 years old, he was raised by an aunt. His health while a boy was rather poor. When he was 14 years of age, his father sent him away to school at the University of Oxford. He later wrote that his father, out of "perplexity rather than prudence, without preparation or delay, carried me to Oxford, and I was matriculated in the university, as a gentleman commoner of Magdalen college, before I had accomplished the fifteenth year of my age".
His father became alarmed when young Gibbon began to espouse a belief in the Roman Catholic Church. Religious controversies raged on the Oxford campus. For a proper English gentleman to convert to Catholicism in the 18th century had significant implications for his life. He would have been ostracized by a great deal of society and had many doors of advancement closed to him. To prevent such an event, the elder Gibbon removed him from the University, and sent him instead to M. Pavilliard, a Protestant pastor and private tutor in Lausanne, Switzerland. His education in Lausanne was to have a profound and lasting impact. He wrote in his memoirs, "Whatsoever have been the fruits of my education, they must be ascribed to the fortunate banishment which placed me in Lausanne... Such as I am, in genius or learning or manners, I owe my creation to Lausanne: it was in that school that the statue was found in the block of marble." Sir Hugh Trevor-Roper says that "Without the experience of Lausanne there would have been no Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire".
The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is considered to be one of the best known historical works in the English language.