Franklin was born in Spilsby, Lincolnshire, in 1786 and educated at King Edward VI Grammar School, Louth. He was the ninth of twelve children born to Hannah Weekes and Willingham Franklin, the descendant of a long line of country gentlemen. One of John's sisters, Sarah, was the mother of Emily Tennyson. His father initially opposed Franklin's interest in a career at sea and reluctantly allowed him to go on a trial voyage with a merchant ship. This confirmed his decision, so when he was 14, his father secured him a Royal Navy appointment on HMS Polyphemus.
Franklin participated in several historic voyages and naval battles including the Battle of Copenhagen aboard HMS Polyphemus, an expedition to the coast of Australia on HMS Investigator with his cousin by marriage, Captain Matthew Flinders, the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 (aboard HMS Bellerophon), and the Battle of New Orleans. He also accompanied Captain Dance on the East India Company's ship the Earl Camden, frightening off Admiral Linois at the Battle of Pulo Aura in the straits of Malacca on 14 February 1804.
In 1819, Franklin was chosen to lead an expedition overland from Hudson Bay to chart the north coast of Canada eastwards from the mouth of the Coppermine River. On his 1819 expedition, Franklin fell into the Hayes River at Robinson Falls and was rescued by a member of his expedition about 90 metres (98 yd) downstream.
Between 1819 and 1822, he lost 11 of the 20 men in his party. Most died of starvation, but there were also at least one murder and suggestions of cannibalism. The survivors were forced to eat lichen and even attempted to eat their own leather boots. This gained Franklin the nickname of "the man who ate his boots".
In 1823, after returning to England, Sir John Franklin married the poet Eleanor Anne Porden. Their daughter, Eleanor Isabella, was born the following year. Eleanor (senior) died of tuberculosis in 1825.
In 1825 he left for his second Canadian and third Arctic expedition. The goal this time was the mouth of the Mackenzie River from which he would follow the coast westward and possibly meet Frederick William Beechey who would try to sail northeast from the Bering Strait. With him was John Richardson who would follow the coast east from the Mackenzie to the mouth of the Coppermine River. At the same time, William Edward Parry would try to sail west from the Atlantic. (Beechey reached Point Barrow and Parry became frozen in 900 miles east. At this time, the only known points on the north coast were a hundred or so miles east from the Bering Strait, the mouth of the Mackenzie, Franklin's stretch east of the Coppermine, and a bit of the Gulf of Boothia which had been seen briefly from land.) Supplies were better organized this time, in part because they were managed by Peter Warren Dease of the Hudson's Bay Company.
After reaching the Great Slave Lake using the standard HBC route, Franklin took a reconnaissance trip 1,000 miles down the Mackenzie and on 16 August 1825, became the second European to reach its mouth. He erected a flagpole with buried letters for Parry. He returned to winter at Fort Franklin on the Great Bear Lake. Next summer he went downriver and found the ocean frozen. He worked his way west for several hundred miles and gave up on 16 August 1826 at Return Reef when he was about 150 miles east of Beechey's Point Barrow. He reached safety at Fort Franklin on 21 September. He left Fort Franklin on 20 February 1827 and spent the rest of the winter and spring at Fort Chipewyan, Alberta. He reached Liverpool on the first of September 1827. Richardson's eastward journey was more successful.
On 5 November 1828, he married Jane Griffin, a friend of his first wife and a seasoned traveller who proved indomitable in the course of their life together. On 29 April 1829, he was knighted by George IV and the same year awarded the first Gold Medal of the Société de Géographie of France. On 25 January 1836, he was made Knight Commander of the Royal Guelphic Order by King William IV. He was made a Knight of the Greek Order of the Redeemer as well.
Franklin was appointed Lieutenant-Governor of Van Diemen's Land in 1836, but was removed from office in 1843.
He is remembered by a significant landmark in the centre of Hobart—a statue of him dominates the park known as Franklin Square, which was the site of the original Government House. On the plinth below the statue appears Tennyson's epitaph:Not here! The white north hath thy bones and thou
Heroic sailor soul
Art passing on thine happier voyage now
Toward no earthly pole
His wife worked to set up a university, which was eventually established in 1890, a museum, credited to the Royal Society of Tasmanian in 1843 under the leadership of her husband. Lady Jane Franklin may have worked to have the Lieutenant-Governor's private botanical gardens, established in 1818, managed as a public resource. Lady Franklin also established a glyptotheque and surrounding lands to support it near Hobart; it was her intent to civilise the colony. The village of Franklin, on the Huon River, is named in his honour, as is the Franklin River on the West Coast of Tasmania, one of the better known Tasmanian rivers due to the Franklin Dam controversy.
Shortly after leaving his post as Governor of Tasmania Franklin revisited a cairn on Arthur's Seat, a small mountain just inside Port Phillip Bay, that he had visited as a midshipman with Captain Matthew Flinders in April 1802.
On this trip he was accompanied by Captain Reid of The Briars and Andrew Murison McCrae of Arthurs Seat Station, now known as McCrae Homestead.
Exploration of the Arctic coastal mainland after Franklin's second Arctic expedition had left less than 500 kilometres (311 mi) of unexplored Arctic coastline. The British decided to send a well-equipped Arctic expedition to complete the charting of the Northwest Passage. After Sir James Ross declined an offer to command the expedition, an invitation was extended to Franklin, who accepted despite his age (59). A younger man, Captain James Fitzjames, was given command of HMS Erebus and Franklin was named the expedition commander. Captain Francis Rawdon Moira Crozier, who had commanded HMS Terror during the Ross 1841–44 Antarctic expedition, was appointed executive officer and commander of HMS Terror. Franklin was given command on 7 February 1845, and received official instructions on 5 May 1845.
HMS Erebus at 370 long tons (380 t) and HMS Terror at 340 long tons (350 t) were sturdily built and were outfitted with recent inventions. These included steam engines from the London and Greenwich Railway that enabled the ships to make 4 knots (7.4 km/h) on their own power, a unique combined steam-based heating and distillation system for the comfort of the crew and to provide large quantities of fresh water for the engine's boilers, a mechanism that enabled the iron rudder and propeller to be drawn into iron wells to protect them from damage, ships' libraries of more than 1,000 books, and three years' worth of conventionally preserved or tinned preserved food supplies. Unfortunately, the latter was supplied from a cut-rate provisioner who was awarded the contract only a few months before the ships were to sail.
Though the provisioner's "patent process" was sound, the haste with which he had prepared thousands of cans of food led to sloppily-applied beads of solder on the cans' interior edges, allowing lead to leach into the food. Additionally, the water distillation system may have used lead piping and lead-soldered joints, which would have produced drinking water with a high lead content. Chosen by the Admiralty, most of the crew were Englishmen, many from the North of England with a small number of Irishmen and Scotsmen.
The Franklin Expedition set sail from Greenhithe, England, on 19 May 1845, with a crew of 24 officers and 110 men. The ships travelled north to Aberdeen and the Orkney Isles for supplies. From Scotland, the ships sailed to Greenland with HMS Rattler and a transport ship, Barretto Junior. After misjudging the location of Whitefish Bay, Disko Island, Greenland, the expedition backtracked and finally harboured in that far north outpost to prepare for the rest of their voyage. Five crew members were discharged and sent home on the Rattler and Barretto Junior, reducing the ships' final crew size to 129. The expedition was last seen by Europeans on 26 July 1845, when Captain Dannett of the whaler Prince of Wales encountered Terror and Erebus moored to an iceberg in Lancaster Sound.
It is now believed that the expedition wintered in 1845–46 on Beechey Island. Terror and Erebus became trapped in ice off King William Island in September 1846 and never sailed again. According to a note later found on that island, Franklin died there on 11 June 1847. To date, the exact location of his grave is unknown.
After two years and no word from the expedition, Franklin's wife urged the Admiralty to send a search party. Because the crew carried supplies for three years, the Admiralty waited another year before launching a search and offering a £20,000 reward for finding the expedition. The money and Franklin's fame led to many searches. At one point, ten British and two American ships, USS Advance and USS Rescue, headed for the Arctic. Eventually, more ships and men were lost looking for Franklin than in the expedition itself.
Ballads such as "Lady Franklin's Lament", commemorating Lady Franklin's search for her lost husband, became popular. In the summer of 1850, expeditions including three from England as well as one from the United States joined in the search. They converged off the east coast of Beechey Island, where the first relics of the Franklin expedition were found, including the gravesites of three Franklin Expedition crewmen.
Franklin was presumed to be still alive by many, and was promoted Rear-Admiral of the Blue in October 1852, an example of an unintentional posthumous promotion.
In 1854, the Scottish explorer Dr. John Rae, while surveying the Boothia Peninsula for the Hudson's Bay Company, discovered the true fate of the Franklin party from talking to Inuit hunters. He was told both ships had become icebound, the men had tried to reach safety on foot but had succumbed to cold and some had resorted to cannibalism. Rae's report to the Admiralty was leaked to the press, which led to widespread revulsion in Victorian society, enraged Franklin's widow and condemned Rae to ignominy. Lady Franklin's efforts to eulogise her husband, with support from the British Establishment, led to a further 25 searches over the next four decades, none of which would add any further information of note.
In the mid-1980s, Owen Beattie, a University of Alberta professor of anthropology, began a 10-year series of scientific studies known as the "1845–48 Franklin Expedition Forensic Anthropology Project", showing that the Beechey Island crew had most likely died of pneumonia and perhaps tuberculosis.
Toxicological reports indicated that lead poisoning was also a possible factor.
In 1997, more than 140 years after Dr. Rae's report, his account was finally vindicated; blade-cut marks on the bones of some of the crew found on King William Island strongly suggested that conditions had become so dire that some crew members resorted to cannibalism. It appeared from these studies that a combination of bad weather, years locked in ice, poisoned food, botulism, starvation, and disease including scurvy, had killed everyone in the Franklin party. In October 2009, Robert Grenier (a Senior Marine Archaeologist at Parks Canada) outlined recent discoveries of sheet metal and copper which have been recovered from 19th-century Inuit hunting sites. Grenier firmly believes these pieces of metal once belonged to the Terror and formed the protective plating of the ship's hull.
A quote from the British newspaper The Guardian states the following:
"After studying 19th-century Inuit oral testimony – which included eyewitness descriptions of starving, exhausted men staggering through the snow without condescending to ask local people how they survived in such a wilderness – [Grenier] believes the 19th-century official accounts that all the surviving expedition members abandoned their ice-locked ships are wrong. He believes both ships drifted southwards, with at least two crew remaining until the final destruction of their vessels. One broke up, but Inuit hunters arriving at their summer hunting grounds reported discovering another ship floating in fresh ice in a cove.
"They're not very strong on location or date," Grenier said. "They have all the space and time in the world, but what they reported seems quite clear."
The ship, probably the Terror, was very neat and orderly, but the Inuit descended into the darkness of the hull with their seal-oil lamps, where they found a tall dead man in an inner cabin. Grenier believes it was there they recovered the copper, which was more valuable than gold to them, and tools including shears from the ship's workshop with which to work it. Hauntingly, they also reported that one of the masts was on fire. Grenier wonders if what they saw was the funnel from the galley still smoking from a meal cooked that morning, before the last of Franklin's men disappeared from history.
For years after the loss of the Franklin party, the Victorian era media portrayed Franklin as a hero who led his men in the quest for the Northwest Passage. A statue of Franklin in his home town bears an inscription stating "Sir John Franklin — Discoverer of the North West Passage". Statues of Franklin outside the Athenaeum in London and in Tasmania bear similar inscriptions.
The mystery surrounding Franklin's last expedition was the subject of a 2006 episode of the Nova television series Arctic Passage and a 2006 documentary Franklin's Lost Expedition on Discovery HD Theater. The expedition has inspired many artistic works including a famous ballad, "Lady Franklin's Lament", a verse play by Canadian poet Gwendolyn MacEwen, a children's book, a short story and essays by Canadian author Margaret Atwood, and several novels, and is referenced in the chorus of Canadian musician Stan Rogers' ballad, Northwest Passage. "Ah, for just one time I would take the Northwest Passage/To find the hand of Franklin reaching for the Beaufort Sea;/ Tracing one warm line through a land so wild and savage/ And make a Northwest Passage to the sea."
Franklin Street, in the city centre of Adelaide, South Australia, is named after him.
There is a neighbourhood in Winnipeg, Manitoba, which is named after Sir John Franklin in the southwest corner of the city. In Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, École Sir John Franklin High School (opened in 1958) is named after the explorer.
He is the namesake for the R/V Franklin, a research vessel built in Queensland. She currently flies the Swedish flag and serves in northern Europe.
The Franklin rose, developed by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, was named in his honour.
Franklin was commemorated by several geographic names, including two islands in Antarctica and Greenland, Franklin Sound north of Tasmania and Franklin Strait in Arctic Canada, whereas his wife has given name to Lady Franklinfjord in Svalbard.
The wintering site of Franklin's second Canadian expedition, in Deline, Northwest Territories, was designated a National Historic Site of Canada in 1996. The explorer was also remembered when one of Canada's Northwest Territories subdivisions was named the District of Franklin. Including the high Arctic islands, this jurisdiction was abolished when the Territories were divided in 1999.
On 29 October 2009, a special service of thanksgiving was held in the chapel at the Royal Naval College, Greenwich, to accompany the rededication of the national monument to Sir John Franklin there. The service also included the solemn re-interment of the remains of Lieutenant Henry Thomas Dundas Le Vesconte, the only remains ever repatriated to England, entombed within the monument in 1873. The event brought together members of the international polar community and invited guests included polar travellers, photographers and authors and descendants of Franklin, Captain Francis Rawdon Moira Crozier and their men, and the families of those who went to search for them, including McClintock, Rear Admiral Sir John Ross and Vice Admiral Sir Robert McClure among many others.
The gala was directed by the Rev Jeremy Frost and polar historian Dr Huw Lewis-Jones and was organized by Polarworld and the High Commission of Canada to the United Kingdom. It was a celebration of the contributions made by the United Kingdom in the charting of the Canadian North, which honoured the loss of life in the pursuit of geographical discovery. It also marked the 150th anniversary of Francis Leopold McClintock's voyage aboard the yacht Fox, returning to London with news of the tragedy. The Navy was represented by Admiral Nick Wilkinson, prayers were led by the Bishop of Woolwich and among the readings were eloquent tributes from Duncan Wilson, chief executive of the Greenwich Foundation and H.E. James Wright, the Canadian High Commissioner.
At a private drinks reception in the Painted Hall which followed this Arctic service, Chief Marine Archaeologist for Parks Canada Robert Grenier spoke of his ongoing search for the missing expedition ships. The following day a group of polar authors went to London's Kensal Green Cemetery to pay their respects to the Arctic explorers buried there. After some difficulty, McClure's gravestone was located. It is hoped that his memorial, in particular, may be conserved in the future. Many other veterans of the searches for Franklin are buried there, including Admiral Sir Horatio Thomas Austin, Admiral Sir George Back, Admiral Sir Edward Augustus Inglefield, Admiral Bedford Clapperton Trevelyan Pim, and Admiral Sir John Ross.
Franklin's redoubtable wife Jane Griffin, Lady Franklin, is also interred at Kensal Green in the vault, and commemorated on a marble cross dedicated to her niece Sophia Cracroft.
In Greenhithe, where he embarked on his final journey, there is a pub named the Sir John Franklin, after him.
In September 2014, the Prime Minister of Canada, Stephen Harper, announced that the wreck of HMS Erebus, one of the two ships from Franklin's final voyage, had been rediscovered.
In March 2015, a winter diving expedition on the Erebus, consisting of Parks Canada and Royal Canadian Navy divers, was announced to commence in April.
On 12 September 2016, it was announced that the Arctic Research Foundation expedition had found the wreck of HMS Terror south of King William Island in Terror Bay and in "pristine" condition. This is many miles south of the last known location of the Terror.
The wrecks are designated a National Historic Site of Canada with the precise location of the designation in abeyance."Franklin Saga Deaths: A Mystery Solved?" National Geographic Magazine, Vol 178, No 3, Sep 1990.
Beardsley, Martyn. Deadly Wintre: The Life of Sir John Franklin.
Beattie, Owen, and Geiger, John (1989). Frozen in Time: Unlocking the Secrets of the Franklin Expedition. Saskatoon: Western Producer Prairie Books. ISBN 0-88833-303-X.
Beattie, Owen and Geiger, John (2004). Frozen In Time: The Fate of the Franklin Expedition (Revised edition)
Berton, Pierre The Arctic Grail.
Coleman, E. C. (2006). The Royal Navy in Polar Exploration, Franklin to Scott.
Cookman, Scott (2001). Ice Blink: The Tragic Fate of Sir John Franklin's Lost Polar Expedition. ISBN 0-471-40420-9
Hutchinson, Gillian (2009) "Searching for Franklin and the Northwest Passage". ISBN 978-0-948065-84-2.
Davis, Richard C. (1995) "Sir John Franklin's Journals and Correspondence: The First Arctic Land Expedition, 1819–1822". The Champlain Society  ISBN 0-9693425-4-3
Davis, Richard C. (1998) "Sir John Franklin's Journals and Correspondence: The Second Arctic Land Expedition, 1825–1827". The Champlain Society  ISBN 0-9693425-9-4
Joel, C. R. (2011) A Tale of Ambition and Unrealised Hope: John Montagu and Sir John Franklin. ISBN 978-1-921509-82-7
Owen Beatle and John Geiger (1992) "Buried in ice: The mystery of a lost arctic expedition" ISBN 0-590-43849-2
Lambert, Andrew (2009) Franklin: Tragic Hero of Polar Navigation. ISBN 978-0-571-23160-7.
McGoogan, Ken Fatal Passage.
McGoogan, Ken Lady Franklin's Revenge.
Mirsky, Jeannette (1970). To the Arctic!: The Story of Northern Exploration from Earliest Times. ISBN 0-226-53179-1.
Murray, David. (2004). The Arctic Fox: Francis Leopold McClintock, Discoverer of the fate of Franklin. Cork: The Collins Press, ISBN 1-55002-523-6.
NOVA – Arctic Passage Part 1 – Prisoners of the Ice (TV documentary). See also program transcript.
Payton, Brian (2009) The Ice Passage ISBN 978-0-385-66532-2
Potter, Russell A. (2016) Finding Franklin: The Untold Story of a 165-Year Search. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press. ISBN 0773547843
Poulsom, Neville W. & Myres, J. A. L. (2000). British polar exploration and research : a historical and medallic record with biographies, 1818–1999. London: Savannah.
Sutton, Ann, and Myron Sutton. Journey into Ice; John Franklin and the Northwest Passage,. Chicago: Rand McNally, 1965.
Stefánsson, Vilhjálmur (1938). Unsolved Mysteries of the Arctic.
Woodman, David C. Unraveling the Franklin Mystery: Inuit Testimony.
The Frozen Deep, unpublished 1856 play and 1874 novella by Wilkie Collins.
The Adventures of Captain Hatteras, Jules Verne, 1864.
Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad, 1902.
The Discovery of Slowness, Sten Nadolny, Novel, 1983.
Solomon Gursky Was Here, Mordecai Richler, 1989.
"John Franklin's Story," Claudia Vurnakes, short story, 1990.
The Broken Lands, Robert Edric, Novel, 1992.
The Rifles, William T. Vollmann, Novel, 1994.
The Voyage of the Narwhal, Andrea Barrett, Novel, 1998.
The Ice Child, Elizabeth McGregor, Novel, 2001.
The Terror, Dan Simmons, Horror novel, 2007.
Arctic Drift, Clive Cussler, Novel, 2008.
Du Bon Usage des Étoiles (English translation, On the Proper Use of Stars), Dominique Fortier, Novel, 2008.
Wanting, Richard Flanagan, Novel, 2008.
The Surfacing, Comac James, Novel, 2014.
Graves of Ice, John Wilson, Young Adult Novel, 2014.
"Lady Franklin's Lament", traditional ballad
Franklin's bones are mentioned in John Spearn's "The Crimson Maple Leaf"
"Lord Franklin", traditional ballad sung by Folkdove in 1975, and in 1995 by Kevin Burke and Mícheál Ó Domhnaill
"Northwest Passage", Stan Rogers, a modern ballad explicitly citing Franklin and others, is a staple of Canadian political discourse
The band Nightnoise included a track called The Erebus and the Terror in their 1987 album Something of Time.