Wolfe was born in Westerham, Kent, England, himself the son of a general, Edward Wolfe, and from his earliest years was destined for a military career. He became a junior officer in 1742 and fought at the Battle of Dettingen in the following year. He participated in the campaign to defeat the Jacobite army of Bonnie Prince Charlie, taking part in the Battle of Culloden in 1746, and by 1758 he was a colonel. His success in Amherst's expedition to Cape Breton and the capture of Fortress Louisbourg on 12 June 1758 let to his being given the command of the Quebec expedition. His army scaled the cliffs in order to surprise the French forces under Montcalm on the Plains of Abraham. Both Montcalm and Wolfe himself died in the subsequent battle, the outcome of which was victory for the British.
Wolfe lived in McCartney House in Croom's Hill, Greenwich, London. His body was buried in St Alfege's Church nearby, a statue of the general overlooks Greenwich Park from a site by the Royal Greenwich Observatory, and there is a memorial to him in Westminster Abbey (by Joseph Wilton).