There is no documentation relating to Cyril Tourneur’s birth or early life. Scholar Allardyce Nicoll plausibly conjectures his connection with the Tourneur family of Great Parndon, Essex, suggesting that he might have been son to Edward Tourneur, a Middle Temple barrister. Nothing is known of Cyril Tourneur’s education. He might have accompanied the Cádiz expedition of 1596, perhaps under the command of Sir Christopher Heydon, to whom he dedicated his first published work, The Transformed Metamorphosis. He served as secretary of Sir Francis Vere, on whose death in 1609 he wrote a funeral elegy. The Atheist’s Tragedy depicts in its hero Charlemont a character resembling Vere in some respects. A lost tragicomedy by Tourneur, The Nobleman, was entered in the Stationers’ Register in 1612. As far as is known, the play was never printed, but it was performed by the King’s Men. Tourneur’s elegiac works on Robert Cecil, earl of Salisbury (wr. 1612), and Prince Henry (1613) complete the recorded corpus of his work, except for a 1613 reference to his being given an act of “The Arraignment of London,” a play of which no other record exists, to write for Philip Henslowe’s company. Some critics have tried to credit Tourneur with the composition of, or at least his hand in, other plays, but without significant evidence.
A career in military and public service surrounded Tourneur’s short period of literary activity. He served the Cecils and carried official letters to Brussels in 1613 and seems later to have been employed in Holland, where he saw military service in 1614. In 1617, Tourneur was arrested—on grounds that are not known—and released on the bond of Sir Edward Cecil, whom he accompanied as secretary of the Council of War and the Marshal’s Court on a voyage to raid Spanish treasure ships at Cádiz in 1625. On the way home from this abortive expedition, he died in Kinsale, Ireland, of an illness that attacked many of the crew. The petitions of his wife, Mary, after his death show that he died destitute.