Buckland was born at Axminster in Devon. He studied at Corpus Christi College, Oxford. In 1813 he was appointed reader in mineralogy in succession to John Kidd, and in 1819 a readership in geology was founded with Buckland being the first holder of the new appointment. In 1818 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society, and in 1824 and again in 1840 he was chosen president of the Geological Society of London.
In 1832 he presided over the second meeting of the British Association, which was then held at Oxford. In 1845 he was appointed by Sir Robert Peel to the vacant deanery of Westminster, and was soon after inducted to the living of Islip, near Oxford, a preferment attached to the deanery. In 1847 he was appointed a trustee in the British Museum; and in 1848 he was awarded the Wollaston Medal by the Geological Society of London.
Buckland's reputation is based on his published scientific works. His great work was Relics of the Deluge (1823), in which he supplemented his former observations on the remains of extinct animals discovered in the cavern of Kirkdale in Yorkshire, and expounded his views as to the bearing of these and similar cases on the Biblical account of the Deluge.