The relationship between surface atmospheric circulation and temperature in Europe from the 1770s to 1995 is examined using correlation analysis. The atmospheric circulation is represented by six indices: the three leading principal components (PCs) of an empirical orthogonal function (EOF) analysis of 20 European pressure series from 1822 to 1995, which represent the central tendency of European pressure (EOF 1), a zonal circulation pattern (EOF 2) and a meridional pattern (EOF 3), a North Atlantic zonal index constructed from Gibraltar and Reykjavik pressure series for 1821–1995; a Western European zonal index constructed from Madrid, Barcelona, Lund and Trondheim for 1786–1995; and an index constructed from Paris and London, 1774–1995. Eight long temperature series from northwestern and central Europe were correlated with these circulation indices. European temperatures in general had the highest correlations with the zonal circulation indices in winter, with almost 70% of the variability in the temperature records explained by variations in the zonal index. The correlation coefficients between PC 3 (representing meridional circulation) and temperatures were highest in spring and autumn, particularly for Scandinavia. Running correlation series calculated over 25-year windows reveal significant non-stationarities in the relationship between surface temperature and atmospheric circulation on decadal time scales, suggesting caution must be used in extrapolating current relationships between circulation and temperature for future climate predictions based on downscaling or past palaeoclimatic reconstructions.