The perennial herb Meconopsis cambrica, a western European endemic, is the only European species of the otherwise Himalayan genus Meconopsis and has been interpreted as a Tertiary relict species. Using rbcL and ITS sequence variation, we date the split between M. cambrica and its sister clade Papaver s.str. to the Middle to Upper Miocene (12.8 Myr, 6.4–19.2 Myr HPD). Within M. cambrica, cpDNA sequence variation reveals the existence of two groups of populations with a comparable level of genetic variation: a northern group from Great Britain, the Massif Central, the western Pyrenees and the Iberian System, and a southern group from the central and eastern Pyrenees. Populations from the Cantabrian Mountains were placed in both groups. Based on ITS sequence variation, the divergence between these two groups can be dated to 1.5 Myr (0.4–2.8 Myr HPD), and the age of the British populations is estimated as 0.37 Myr (0.0–0.9 Myr HPD). Amplified fragment length polymorphism results confirm the distinctive nature of the populations from Britain, the Massif Central and the central and eastern Pyrenees. These patterns of latitudinal variation of M. cambrica differ from patterns of longitudinal differentiation found in many other temperate species and imply glacial survival of the northern populations in northerly refugia. The primary differentiation into northern and southern cpDNA groups dates to near the onset of the Quaternary and suggests that an ancient phylogeographic pattern has survived through several glacial periods. Our data provide evidence that the species has persisted for a long period with a highly fragmented and probably very localized distribution.