Previous studies have reported that chromosome synteny in Lepidoptera has been well conserved, yet the number of haploid chromosomes varies widely from 5 to 223. Here we report the genome (393 Mb) of the Glanville fritillary butterfly (Melitaea cinxia; Nymphalidae), a widely recognized model species in metapopulation biology and eco-evolutionary research, which has the putative ancestral karyotype of n=31. Using a phylogenetic analyses of Nymphalidae and of other Lepidoptera, combined with orthologue-level comparisons of chromosomes, we conclude that the ancestral lepidopteran karyotype has been n=31 for at least 140 My. We show that fusion chromosomes have retained the ancestral chromosome segments and very few rearrangements have occurred across the fusion sites. The same, shortest ancestral chromosomes have independently participated in fusion events in species with smaller karyotypes. The short chromosomes have higher rearrangement rate than long ones. These characteristics highlight distinctive features of the evolutionary dynamics of butterflies and moths.