Heinrich events (HEs) are dramatic episodes of marine-terminating ice discharge and sediment rafting during periods of cold North Atlantic climate. However, the causal chain of events leading to their occurrence is unresolved. Here, we demonstrate that enhanced surface melting of land-terminating margins of the southern Fennoscandian Ice Sheet (FIS) is a recurring feature of Heinrich stadials (HSs), the cold periods during which HEs occur. We use neodymium isotopes to show that the Channel River transported detrital sediments from the interior of eastern Europe to the Bay of Biscay in the northeast Atlantic Ocean at ca. 158–154 ka. Based on similar evidence from the last glacial period, we infer that this interval corresponds to the melting and retreat of the southern FIS margin despite contemporaneous cooling in the North Atlantic and central Europe. The FIS melting episode occurred just prior to a HE, consistent with findings from the more recent HSs 1, 2, and 3. Based on this evidence, we clarify a sequence of events that precedes HEs. Precursor melting of North Atlantic–adjacent ice sheets induces an initial Atlantic meridional overturning circulation (AMOC) slowdown. Atmospheric changes during the resulting HS cause summertime warming in northern Europe that drives enhanced FIS melting. Subsequent meltwater discharge to the North Atlantic further weakens the AMOC and warms the intermediate water masses that contribute to HEs.