Explosive volcanism can alter global climate, and hence trigger economic, political and demographic change. The climatic impact of the largest volcanic events has been assessed in numerous modelling studies and tree-ring-based hemispheric temperature reconstructions. However, volcanic surface cooling derived from climate model simulations is systematically much stronger than the cooling seen in tree-ring-based proxies, suggesting that the proxies underestimate cooling; and/or the modelled forcing is unrealistically high. Here, we present summer temperature reconstructions for the Northern Hemisphere from tree-ring width and maximum latewood density over the past 1,500 years. We also simulate the climate effects of two large eruptions, in AD 1257 and 1815, using a climate model that accounts explicitly for self-limiting aerosol microphysical processes. Our tree-ring reconstructions show greater cooling than reconstructions with lower spatial coverage and based on tree-ring width alone, whereas our simulations show less cooling than previous simulations relying on poorly constrained eruption seasons and excluding nonlinear aerosol microphysics. Our tree-ring reconstructions and climate simulations are in agreement, with a mean Northern Hemisphere extra-tropical summer cooling over land of 0.8 to 1.3 °C for these eruptions. This reconciliation of proxy and model evidence paves the way to improved assessment of the role of both past and future volcanism in climate forcing.