The first reference to the Olsztyn flag was made already in the mid-15th century in the chronicle by Jan Długosz. When describing the banners won at Grunwald, the author noted down that one of them belonged to the “civitas Holsten maior”, it is to the inhabitants of the “major city of Holsten” – as Olsztyn was called at that time to distinguish it from Olsztynek – the minor city. The banners became symbols of the municipal self-governance already in the Middle Ages. Until the end of the 18th century they served mainly as identification signs during battles. Over the next decade it was common to attach a symbolic meaning to colours, which resulted in introducing them to flags. At the time of the Second Polish Republic the colours and city flags caught an immense popularity on the Polish territories. After the Second World War, in the period of People’s Republic of Poland, the city flags also existed, however they did not appear on a massive scale until 1990, when the first democratic election to the local government took place. At that time also Olsztyn was granted a flag designed by Jacek Skorupski from the Polish Vexillological Society. According to the “regulations” in force, the flag of Olsztyn is a rectangular piece of blue cloth with a yellow shell in its upper part and a wavy white stripe decorating its lower part.
The colours of the city flag derived from the colouring of the Olsztyn coat of arms. That is why they carry the following significance:
• white – the colour of the emblem, it is of the clothes of St James
• blue – the colour of the shield,
• yellow – the colour of other elements depicted on the coat of arms: golden poulaines, aureole, pilgrim stick and the shel.
The only graphic elements of the Olsztyn flag are the yellow shell and the white stripe. The shell is a special element of the Olsztyn flag – it is the pilgrim’s emblem and indispensable attribute of St James, the patron of the city. The shell motif on the flag refers directly to the coat of arms and serves at the same time as an individual identification sign to distinguish the flag from other Polish commune and city banners. It should be also remembered that the shell found on the Olsztyn flag – referred to as the pilgrim’s shell – is one of the emblems of pilgrims heading for Santiago de Compostela, the believed burial site of St James the Elder, Apostle. The shell was to serve pilgrims on their route as a bowl or plate. The shells were collected on the coast or made of ceramics and metal. As for St James, he was often depicted only with a pilgrim stick, pannier and the shell. At present, the shell emblem marks St James’s Route – it is found on the paving of the roads leading to Santiago and on additional yellow arrows. The shell is also a decorative element of clothing or sticks of pilgrims heading for the sanctuary. On the route, they have at their disposal not only churches or chapels but may also find comfortable accommodation at parish buildings, on agro-touristic farms and in youth hostels. The wavy stripe at the bottom of the flag symbolises water, which refers to the natural location of the city on the River Łyna, between a dozen of lakes. That sign adds the white element to the Olsztyn flag.