Global change amplifies coastal flood risks and motivates a paradigm shift towards nature-based coastal defence, where engineered structures are supplemented with coastal wetlands such as saltmarshes. Although experiments and models indicate that such natural defences can attenuate storm waves, there is still limited field evidence on how much they add safety to engineered structures during severe storms. Using well-documented historic data from the 1717 and 1953 flood disasters in Northwest Europe, we show that saltmarshes can reduce both the chance and impact of the breaching of engineered defences. Historic lessons also reveal a key but unrecognized natural flood defence mechanism: saltmarshes lower flood magnitude by confining breach size when engineered defences have failed, which is shown to be highly effective even with long-term sea level rise. These findings provide new insights into the mechanisms and benefits of nature-based mitigation of flood hazards, and should stimulate the development of novel safety designs that smartly harness different natural coastal defence functions.