Peatlands are a major terrestrial carbon store and a persistent natural carbon sink during the Holocene, but there is considerable uncertainty over the fate of peatland carbon in a changing climate. It is generally assumed that higher temperatures will increase peat decay, causing a positive feedback to climate warming and contributing to the global positive carbon cycle feedback. Here we use a new extensive database of peat profiles across northern high latitudes to examine spatial and temporal patterns of carbon accumulation over the past millennium. Opposite to expectations, our results indicate a small negative carbon cycle feedback from past changes in the long-term accumulation rates of northern peatlands. Total carbon accumulated over the last 1000 yr is linearly related to contemporary growing season length and photosynthetically active radiation, suggesting that variability in net primary productivity is more important than decomposition in determining long-term carbon accumulation. Furthermore, northern peatland carbon sequestration rate declines over the climate transition from the Medieval Climate Anomaly (MCA) to the Little Ice Age (LIA), probably because of lower LIA temperatures combined with increased cloudiness suppressing net primary productivity. Other factors including changing moisture status, peatland distribution, fire, nitrogen deposition, permafrost thaw and methane emissions will also influence future peatland carbon cycle feedbacks, but our data suggest that the carbon sequestration rate could increase over many areas of northern peatlands.