Macaronesia is a biogeographical region comprising five Atlantic Oceanic archipelagos: the Azores, Madeira, Selvagen (Savage Islands), Canaries and Cape Verde. It has strong affinities with the Atlantic coast of the Iberian Peninsula and the north-western fringes of Africa. This paper re-evaluates the biogeographical history and relationships of Macaronesia in the light of geological evidence, which suggests that large and high islands may have been continuously available in the region for very much longer than is indicated by the maximum surface area of the oldest current island (27 Ma) – possibly for as long as 60 million years. We review this literature, attempting a sequential reconstruction of Palaeo-Macaronesia from 60 Ma to the present. We consider the implications of these geological dynamics for our understanding of the history of colonization of the present islands of Macaronesia. We also evaluate the role of these archipelagos as stepping stones and as both repositories of palaeo-endemic forms and crucibles of neo-endemic radiations of plant and animal groups. Our principal focus is on the laurel forest communities, long considered impoverished relicts of the Palaeotropical Tethyan flora. This account is therefore contextualized by reference to the long-term climatic and biogeographical history of Southern Europe and North Africa and by consideration of the implications of changes in land–sea configuration, climate and ocean circulation for Macaronesian biogeography. We go on to provide a synthesis of the more recent history of Macaronesian forests, which has involved a process of impoverishment of the native elements of the biota that has accelerated since human conquest of the islands. We comment briefly on these processes and on the contemporary status and varied conservation opportunities and threats facing these forests across the Macaronesian biogeographical region.