He was born at Shustoke, near Coleshill, Warwickshire, of an old Lancashire family, and he was educated at Coventry. To please his elderly father, he married at seventeen, and lived with his wife's family until his father's death in 1624, when he went to live at Fillongley, near Shustoke, an estate formerly purchased for him by his father. In 1625 he purchased the manor of Blythe, Shustoke, and moved there. He had already shown an inclination for antiquarian studies, and in 1635, meeting Sir Symon Archer (1581-1662), himself a learned antiquary, who was then employed in collecting materials for a history of Warwickshire, he accompanied him to London. There he made the acquaintance of Sir Christopher Hatton, Baron Hatton of Kirby, comptroller of the household, and Thomas Howard, 2nd Earl of Arundel, then earl marshal of England.
In 1638 Dugdale was created a pursuivant of arms extraordinary by the name of Blanch Lyon, and in 1639 rouge croix pursuivant in ordinary. He now had a lodging in the Heralds' Office, and spent much of his time in London examining the records in the Tower and the Cottonian and other collections of manuscripts. In 1641 Sir Christopher Hatton, foreseeing the war and dreading the ruin and spoliation of the Church, commissioned him to make exact drafts of all the monuments in Westminster Abbey and the principal churches in England, including Peterborough Cathedral, Ely Cathedral, Norwich Cathedral, Lincoln Cathedral. Newark, Beverley Minster, Southwell Minster, Kingston-upon-Hull, York Minster, Selby Abbey, Chester Cathedral, Lichfield Cathedral, Tamworth and Warwick Cathedral.
In June 1642 he was summoned to attend the king at York. When war broke out Charles deputed him to summon to surrender the castles of Banbury and Warwick, and other strongholds which were being rapidly filled with ammunition and rebels. He went with Charles to Oxford, remaining there till its surrender in 1646. He witnessed the battle of Edgehill, where he made afterwards an exact survey of the field, noting how the armies were drawn up, and where and in what direction the various movements took place, and marking the graves of the slain. In November 1642 he was admitted M.A. of the university, and in 1644 the king created him Chester herald.
During his leisure at Oxford he collected material at the Bodleian Library and college libraries for his books. In 1646 Dugdale returned to London and compounded for his estates, which had been sequestrated, by a payment of £268. After a visit to France in 1648 he continued his antiquarian researches in London, collaborating with Roger Dodsworth in his Monasticon Anglicanum, which was published successively in single volumes in 1655, 1664 and 1673. At the Restoration he obtained the office of Norroy king-at-arms, and in 1677 was created garter principal king-at-arms, and was knighted. He died "in his chair" at Blythe Hall.
Dugdale's most important works are Antiquities of Warwickshire (1656); Monasticon Anglicanum (1655-1673); History of St Paul's Cathedral (1658); and Baronage of England (1675-1676). His Life, written by himself up to 1678, with his diary and correspondence, and an index to his manuscript collections, was edited by William Hamper, and published in 1827.