Francis Cohen was born in London, the son of Meyer Cohen, a Jewish stockbroker (d. 1831) by his wife Rachel Levien Cohen (d. 1815). He was initially articled as a clerk to a London solicitor's firm, and remained there as chief clerk until 1822. His father was financially ruined in 1810 and Francis, the eldest son, became responsible for supporting his parents. Around 1814, Francis Cohen began contributing to the Edinburgh Review; he made the acquaintance of the banker Dawson Turner and his daughter Elizabeth in 1819, offering to correct the proofs of Mr Turner's book on Normandy. In 1821, Francis Cohen was admitted to the Fellowship of the Royal Society, one of his sponsors being Turner. Cohen converted to Anglican Christianity before his marriage to Elizabeth Turner on 13 October 1823.
Around the time of his marriage, Cohen also changed his surname to "Palgrave" (his wife's mother's maiden name) by royal licence. It is not clear if either the religious conversion or the name change were conditions of his marriage; however, his father-in-law paid for the expenses of the name change, and settled £3,000 on the couple.
In 1822, he had suggested publishing the national records which suggestion was approved, and from 1827 to 1837, he edited a series of volumes. These historical documents focused on medieval history. His works include A History of England (1831), The Rise and Progress of the English Commonwealth (1832), An Essay on the Original Authority of the King's Council (1834), Truths and Fictions of the Middle Ages: the Merchant and the Friar (1837) and The History of Normandy and England (1851-64, four volumes). The last two volumes of this work were published after his death.
Palgrave is also considered the founder of the Public Record Office. He was appointed Deputy Keeper of HM Public Records (or the reconstituted and reorganized Records Office) in 1838, holding that position until his death. In this position, he issued a series of twenty two annual reports.
He was knighted in 1832, and was known in his day as an antiquarian.
Palgrave and his wife Elizabeth Turner were the parents of four sons, all distinguished and all authors in their respective fields. Among them, the best known today are the eldest two.
- Francis Turner Palgrave (1824-1897), poet, anthologist, educationist and bureaucrat, editor of Golden Treasury of English Songs and Lyrics, better known as Palgrave's Golden Treasury
- William Gifford Palgrave (1826-1888 Montevideo, Uruguay), Jesuit priest and missionary turned diplomat, anthropologist and traveller
- Sir Inglis Palgrave or Robert Harry Inglis Palgrave (1827-1919), economist, knighted 1909, author of Palgrave's Dictionary of Political Economy, as well as editor Palgrave's collected historical works. He married in 1859 Sarah Maria Brightwen, daughter of George Brightwen.
- Sir Reginald Palgrave, KCB; or Reginald Francis Douce Palgrave (1829-1904); md 1857 Grace Battley, daughter of Richard Battley. Clerk to the House of Commons 1886-1902. Made KCB 1892.
Palgrave was survived by his four sons, his wife having predeceased him in August 1852.
- Chambers' cyclopædia of English literature 7-8 p360 "SIR FRANCIS PALGRAVE. This distinguished archaeologist, formerly deputy-keeper of the Public Records, was an indefatigable student of our early history. He was born in London in 1788."
- A chronology of the Palgraves
- The Jewish Discovery of Islam pt 1
- Palgrave's works
- Biographical note from Nuttall Encyclopedia
- Portrait of Palgrave by his mother-in-law Mary Dawson Turner, nee Palgrave