He was born at Maston Pierse or Percy, near Malmesbury, Wiltshire, of a wealthy and famous family of the border region. He was educated at the Malmesbury grammar school under Robert Latimer, who had numbered Thomas Hobbes among his earlier pupils, and at Latimer's house Aubrey first met the philosopher about whom he was later to write. He entered Trinity College, Oxford, in 1642, but his studies were interrupted by the English Civil War. In 1646 he became a student of the Middle Temple, but was never called to the bar. He spent much of his time in the country, and in 1649 he drew attention to the megalithic remains at Avebury. His father died in 1652, leaving Aubrey large estates, but with them some complicated debts.
Aubrey nevertheless used his wealth to satisfy his passion for the company of celebrities and for any interesting details he could learn about them. Anthony Wood predicted that he would one day break his neck while running downstairs after a retreating guest, in the hope of finding out more about him. He played no active part in politics, but from his description of a meeting of the Rotary Club, founded by James Harrington, the author of Oceana, he appears to have had republican beliefs. His reminiscences on this subject date from the Restoration, and have been toned down accordingly.
In 1663 Aubrey became a member of the Royal Society, and in the next year he met William Somner, "in an ill hour," he tells us. He lost estate after estate due to lawsuits, till in 1670 he parted with his last piece of property, Maston Pierse. From this time he was dependent on the hospitality of his numerous friends. In 1667 he had made the acquaintance of Anthony Wood at Oxford, and when Wood began to gather materials for his invaluable Athenae Oxonienses, Aubrey offered to collect information for him. From time to time he forwarded memoranda to him, and in 1680 he began to promise the work "Minutes for Lives," which Wood was to use at his discretion.
He left the task of verification largely to Wood. As a hanger-on in great houses he had little time for systematic work, and he wrote the "Lives" in the early morning while his hosts were sleeping off the effects of the night before. He constantly leaves blanks for dates and facts and inserts fresh information at random. Although he made some distinction between hearsay and authentic information, but had little concern with accuracy, his retentive memory being the chief authority. The principal charm of his work lies in the amusing details he recounts about his subjects, and the lack of respect he shows for established reputations. In 1592 he complained bitterly that Wood had destroyed forty pages of his manuscript, probably for fear of a libel case.
Wood was eventually prosecuted for insinuations against the judicial integrity of the school of Clarendon. One of the two statements called in question are founded on information provided by Aubrey and this may explain the estrangement between the two antiquaries and the ungrateful account that Wood gives of the elder man's character. "He was a shiftless person, roving and magotie-headed, and sometimes little better than crased. And being exceedingly credulous, would stuff his many letters sent A. W. with follies and misinformations, which sometimes began his "Perambulation" or "Survey" of the county of Surrey, which was the result of many years' labour in collecting descriptions and traditions in the country. He began a "History his Native District of Northern Wiltshire," but, feeling that was too old to finish it as he would wish, he made over his material, about 1695, to Thomas Tanner, afterwards Bishop of St Asaph. In the next year he published his only completed, though certainly not his most valuable work, the Miscellanies. Aubrey died in June 1697, and was buried in the church of St Mary Magdalene.
Beside the works already mentioned, his papers included: "Architectonica Sacra," notes on ecclesiastical antiquities; and "Life of Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury," which served as the basis Dr Blackburn's Latin life, and also of Wood's account. His survey of Surrey was incorporated in R Rawlinson's Natural History and Antiquities of Surrey (1719); his antiquarian notes on Wiltshire were printed in Wiltshire: the Topographical Collections John Aubrey, corrected and enlarged by JE Jackson (Devizes, 52); part of another manuscript on "The Natural History of Wiltshire" was printed by John Britton in 1847 for the Wiltshire Topographical Society; the Miscellanies were edited in 1890 for the Library of Old Authors; the "Minutes for Lives" were partially edited in 1813. A complete transcript, Brief Lives chiefly of Contemporaries set down John Aubrey between the Years 1669 and 1696, was edited for the Clarendon Press in 1898 by the Rev. Andrew Clark from manuscripts in the Bodleian Library, Oxford.
See also John Britton, Memoir of John Aubrey (1845); David Masson, in the British Quarterly Review, July 1856; Émile Montégut, Heures de lecture d'un critique (1891); and a catalogue of Aubrey's selections in The Life and Times of Anthony Wood ..., by Andrew Clark (Oxford, 1891-1900, vol. iv. pp. 191-193), which contains many other references to Aubrey.