Multidecadal surface temperature changes may be forced by natural as well as anthropogenic factors, or arise unforced from the climate system. Distinguishing these factors is essential for estimating sensitivity to multiple climatic forcings and the amplitude of the unforced variability. Here we present 2,000-year-long global mean temperature reconstructions using seven different statistical methods that draw from a global collection of temperature-sensitive palaeoclimate records. Our reconstructions display synchronous multidecadal temperature fluctuations that are coherent with one another and with fully forced millennial model simulations from the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project Phase 5 across the Common Era. A substantial portion of pre-industrial (1300–1800 CE) variability at multidecadal timescales is attributed to volcanic aerosol forcing. Reconstructions and simulations qualitatively agree on the amplitude of the unforced global mean multidecadal temperature variability, thereby increasing confidence in future projections of climate change on these timescales. The largest warming trends at timescales of 20 years and longer occur during the second half of the twentieth century, highlighting the unusual character of the warming in recent decades.