Frayling read history at Churchill College, Cambridge and gained a PhD in the study of Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
He taught history at the University of Bath and in 1979 was appointed Professor of Cultural History at London's post-graduate art and design school, the Royal College of Art. Frayling was Rector in charge of the Royal College of Art from 1996 to 2009.
He was the Chairman of Arts Council England from 2005 until January 2010. Frayling has also been Chairman of the Design Council, Chairman of the Royal Mint Advisory Committee, and a Trustee of the Victoria and Albert Museum. He was a governor of the British Film Institute in the 1980s.
In 2001, Christopher Frayling was awarded a knighthood for "Services to Art and Design Education" and chose as his motto "PERGE SCELUS MIHI DIEM PERFICIAS", which can be translated as "Proceed, varlet, and let the day be rendered perfect for my benefit". He wished to suggest the well-known phrase attributed to Police Inspector Harry Callahan in the movie Dirty Harry: "Go ahead, punk, make my day". (The role of Callahan was played by Clint Eastwood.)
Frayling has had a wide output as a writer and critic on subjects ranging from vampires to westerns. He has written and presented television series such as The Art of Persuasion on advertising and Strange Landscape on the Middle Ages.
He has conducted a series of radio and television interviews with figures from the world of film, including Woody Allen, Deborah Kerr, Ken Adam, Francis Ford Coppola and Clint Eastwood. He has also written and presented several television series, including The Face of Tutankhamun and Nightmare: Birth of Horror.
He is especially known for his study of spaghetti westerns and specifically director Sergio Leone. He has written a very popular biography of Leone, Something To Do With Death (2000); helped run the Los Angeles-based Gene Autry Museum's exhibit on Leone in the summer of 2005; and has appeared in numerous documentaries about Leone and his films, particularly the DVD documentaries of Once Upon a Time in the West (1968). He also provided audio commentaries for the special edition DVD releases of A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, Once Upon a Time in the West and Colossus of Rhodes. His brother, Nicholas Frayling is the Dean of Chichester.