He was born in Newcastle-under-Lyme and his father was a cabinetmaker. At the age of 9, he apprenticed to work with his father, but Astley's dream was to work with horses. So he joined Colonel Eliott’s Fifteenth Light Dragoon Regiment when he was 17, and later became a Sergeant-Major. He also served in the French and Indian War and his army service brought him into contact with professional trainers and horse riders. Astley himself was a brilliant rider.
Astley had a genius for trick riding. He saw that the trick riders were paid much attention by the crowds in Islington, and he had an idea for opening a riding school in London, where he could put on shows of acrobatic riding skill.
In 1768 Astley opened a riding-school in London, England, south of the Westminster Bridge. He taught in the morning and performed his “feats of horsemanship” in the afternoon. Astley called the arena a circus because of its shape, and Astley chose it for two reasons. First of all, it was easier for the audience to keep the riders in sight. Secondly, the ring, as the circus was better known, helped riders through generation of centrifugal force, which allowed them to keep their balance whilst standing on the backs of their galloping horses. After a few years, he added a platform and seats to his ring and roofed the circus over.
Astley's original circus was 62 feet in diameter, and later he settled it at 42 feet, which has been an international standard for circuses since then.
Astley began to make more and more money and made a good reputation. However, after two seasons in London, he had to bring some novelty to his performances, so he hired other equestrians, musicians, a clown, jugglers, tumblers, tightrope walkers and dancings dogs. This laid the foundations of the modern circus, as we know it today.
His circus was so popular that he was invited in 1772 to perform before King Louis XV of France in Versailles, and later opened the first Parisian circus in 1782, which he called the Amphitheatre Anglois. Soon after that others opened new circuses and this led to their worldwide fame.
In the same year, he had to meet his first competitor in the person of equestrian Charles Hughes, who had previously worked with Astley. Together with Charles Dibdin, a famous author of pantomimes, Hughes opened a rival amphitheatre in London, which Dibdin called Royal Circus and Equestrian Philharmonic Academy.
Astley established 18 other circuses in other European cities.
Astley was patronised by a great number of royals: kings, queens, princes, princesses and so on. He was famous, enviable and rich, occasionally.
He never used wild animals in the circus arena. They began to be displayed 14 years after his death.