We analyse distribution records for 51 British butterfly species to investigate altitudinal and latitudinal responses to twentieth century climate warming. Species with northern and/or montane distributions have disappeared from low elevation sites and colonized sites at higher elevations during the twentieth century, consistent with a climate explanation. We found no evidence for a systematic shift northwards across all species, even though 11 out of 46 southerly distributed species have expanded in the northern part of their distributions. For a subset of 35 species, we model the role of climate in limiting current European distributions and predict potential future distributions for the period 2070–2099. Most northerly distributed species will have little opportunity to expand northwards and will disappear from areas in the south, resulting in reduced range sizes. Southerly distributed species will have the potential to shift northwards, resulting in similar or increased range sizes. However, 30 out of 35 study species have failed to track recent climate changes because of lack of suitable habitat, so we revised our estimates accordingly for these species and predicted 65% and 24% declines in range sizes for northern and southern species, respectively. These revised estimates are likely to be more realistic predictions of future butterfly range sizes.