Very little is known of Dowland's early life, but it generally thought he was born in London or possibly Dublin. It is known that he went to Paris in 1580 where he was in service to the ambassador to the French court. He became a Roman Catholic at this time, which he claimed led to him not being offered a post at Elizabeth I's Protestant court. He worked instead for many years at that of the Christian IV of Denmark. He returned to England in 1606 and in 1612 secured a post as one of James I of England's lutenists. He died in London.
Most of Downland's music is for his own instrument, the lute. They include several books of solo lute works, lute songs (for one voice and lute), part-songs with lute accompaniment, and several pieces for viol consort with lute. His best known work is the lute song "Flow My Tears", the first verse of which runs:
Dowland's music often displays the melancholia that was so fashionable in music at that time. He wrote a consort piece with the punning title Semper Dowland, semper dolens (always Dowland, always doleful), which may be said to sum up much of his work.
Dowland's lute music is a recurring theme in Philip K. Dick's science fiction.