Charles Townshend was born at Raynham Hall in Norfolk, England, on August 27, 1725, the second of five children of Charles Townshend, 3rd Viscount Townshend (1700-1764), and his wife, Etheldreda Audrey Harrison (ca. 1708-1788). In 1741, his parents formally separated, and Townshend took the side of his father. The next year, he entered Clare College, Cambridge, where he studied for three years, followed by a year at Leiden University, and an additional year devoted to the study of law at Lincoln's Inn.
Townshend's political career began in 1747, when he entered Parliament for Great Yarmouth, a seat he held until 1756. He subsequently represented Saltash (1756-1761), and Harwich (1761-1767), and gained a reputation as an excellent speechmaker. He also held an appointment on the Board of Trade and Plantations (1748-1754) and served as Lord of the Admiralty (1754). In 1755, he married Caroline (Campbell) Scott, the wealthy widow of Francis Scott, Earl of Dalkeith, and thereby became stepfather to Henry Scott, 3rd Duke of Buccleuch (1746-1812). With Caroline, he had a daughter, Anne (b. 1756).
On March 18, 1761, Townshend succeeded William Barrington as Secretary-at-War, and in December 1762, he voted against the Earl of Bute's preliminary overtures to end the Seven Years' War and resigned in protest over the administration's stance. He was brought back in the following year by George Grenville as president of the Board of Trade, 1763-1765, but soon became a vocal critic of Grenville, contributing to the downfall of the ministry. After the accession of the Rockingham Whigs, Townshend was retained as paymaster general. On August 2, 1766, when the Earl of Chatham formed his second administration, Townshend was appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer. Soon after, Chatham suffered health problems and was forced to withdraw from active oversight. Townshend took this opportunity to maximize his influence over the ministry, creating his wife baroness of Greenwich and securing for his brother the lord-lieutenancy of Ireland. He also turned his attention to increasing the revenue from the North American colonies. Declaring himself in favor of the recently repealed Stamp Act, he introduced a series of measures, known as the Townshend Acts, designed to deal with the unrest in America, including the suspension of the New York Colonial Assembly, the establishment of resident commissioners of customs in the colonies, and the introduction of duties on glass, lead, paint, paper, and tea. This engendered the widespread opposition of the colonists, but Townshend did not live to see its consequences; he died suddenly of a fever at the age of 41 on September 4, 1767.