Armitage was born in Huddersfield, West Yorkshire and grew up in the village of Marsden. Armitage first studied at Colne Valley High School, Linthwaite and went on to study geography at Portsmouth Polytechnic. He was a post-graduate student at the University of Manchester where his MA thesis concerned the effects of television violence on young offenders. Until 1994 he worked as Probation Officer in Greater Manchester. He was awarded an Honorary Doctor of Letters in 1996 from the University of Portsmouth. He then lectured on creative writing at the University of Leeds, the University of Iowa and Manchester Metropolitan University. He has made literary, history and travel programmes for BBC Radios 3 and 4; and since 1996 he has written and presented a number of TV documentaries. In February 2011 he became Professor of Poetry at the University of Sheffield. He has won a wealth of awards for his work, including the Keats-Shelley Prize for Poetry in 2010 and the Hay Medal for Poetry in 2012. He was also awarded a CBE for services to poetry in 2010.
He lives in West Yorkshire. He is a lifelong Huddersfield Town fan and makes many references to supporting his local team in his book All Points North.