The impact of climate fluctuations during the Pleistocene on the geographic structure of genetic variation in plant populations is well documented, but there is a lack of studies of annual species at the European scale. The present study aimed to infer the history of the widespread European annual Rhinanthus angustifolius C. C. Gmelin (Orobanchaceae). We explored variation in chloroplast DNA (cpDNA) sequences and amplified fragment length polymorphism (AFLP) in twenty-nine populations covering the entire distribution area of the species. Five AFLP groups were identified, suggesting at least two glacial refugial areas: one area in southwestern Europe and one large eastern area in the Balkan/Caucasus. Recolonization of previously glaciated areas mainly took place from the east of Europe. Despite the difference in life-history traits, the patterns found for the annual R. angustifolius show similarities with those of perennial species in terms of genetic diversity and geographic organization of genetic variation. Although organelle markers have typically been preferred in phylogeographic studies, the cpDNA variation in R. angustifolius did not show any clear geographic structure. The absence of geographic structure in the cpDNA variation may reflect persistence of ancestral polymorphisms or hybridization and introgression with closely-related species. © 2009 The Linnean Society of London, Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2009, 98, 1–13.