He was born in Birmingham, where his father, who came of an old Herefordshire family with Royalist traditions, was in business. He was the grandson of Ralph Lingen MA (Oxon) Fellow of Wadham College, Oxford and was a descendant of Elisabeth de Burgh d 1522 co heiress of the ancient and native Kings and Princes of Wales and her husband Sir John Lingen d 1506. Ralph was first educated at Bridgnorth Grammar School. Lingen became a scholar of Trinity College, Oxford, in 1837; won the Ireland (1838) and Hertford (1839) scholarships; and after taking a first-class in Literae Humaniores (1840), Was elected a fellow of Balliol (1841). He subsequently won the Chancellor's Latin Essay (1843) and the Eldon Law scholarship (1846).
After teaching as an assistant master at Rugby School he entered the Inns of Court as a Barrister at Lincoln's Inn. He was called to the bar in 1847; but instead of practising as a barrister, he accepted an appointment in the Education Office, and after a short period was chosen in 1849 to succeed Sir James Kay-Shuttleworth as its secretary or chief permanent official. He retained this position till 1869. The Education Office of that day had to administer a somewhat chaotic system of government grants to local schools, and Lingen was conspicuous for his fearless discrimination and rigid economy, qualities which characterized his whole career. When Robert Lowe (Lord Sherbrooke) became, as vice-president of the council, his parliamentary chief, Lingen worked congenially with him in producing the Revised Code of 1862 which incorporated "payment by results"; but the education department encountered adverse criticism, and in 1864 the vote of censure in parliament which caused Lowe's resignation, founded (but erroneously) on an alleged "editing" of the school inspectors' reports, was inspired by a certain antagonism to Lingen's as well as to Lowe's methods.
Shortly before the introduction of Forster's Education Act of 1870, he was transferred to the post of permanent secretary of the treasury. In this office, which he held till 1885, he proved a most efficient guardian of the public purse, and he was a tower of strength to successive chancellors of the exchequer. It used to be said that the best recommendation for a secretary of the treasury was to be able to say "No" so disagreeably that nobody would court a repetition. Lingen was at all events a most successful resister of importunate claims, and his undoubted talents as a financier were most prominently displayed in the direction of parsimony. In 1885 he retired. He had been made a CB in 1869 and a KCB in 1878, and on his retirement he was created Baron Lingen. In 1889 he was made one of the first aldermen of the new London County Council, but he resigned in 1892 with increasing deafness. He was married, but had no children.
Lingen died in 1905 and is buried in Brompton Cemetery, London.