It's hard to say when the original Samogitian first appeared and what it looked like, since none of the early flags survived.
No flag accompanied the Samogitians into battle at Zalgiris (Gruenwald) in 1410.
The Samogitians didn't yet take along a flag when they attended the Church gathering in Constance and asked the Grand Duke Vytautas for permission to use his heraldry.
In 1528 military records only regional flag-bearers are mentioned - for example, the Vilkija flag was carried by Mykolas Stankevicius and the Veliuona flag by Mikna Rusteikovicius.
The Samogitian flag was first officially mentioned in 1565-66 during a period of administrative reform. Then it was described only as a "white coat of arms on a red background." That was the Samogitian battle flag, kept in the Lithuanian treasury. It's unclear when this flag was sewn - perhaps during the first military conscription in the early 16th c.
The Samogitian flag was taken out of the treasury during military conscription periods, in honor of high-ranking visitors, and, of course, during battle.
A little more information about the Samogitian flag comes to light after 1578. Aleksandras Gvagninas, who served in the Lithuanian armed forces and had the chance to see more that one flag, wrote that the flag the Samogitians used during battle was white and had two horns or a tail. The flag also depicted the Lithuanian Grand Duke's coat of arms on a red shield.
In 1584 the Polish-Lithuanian coat-of-arms-maker Bartosas Paprockis is the first to mention that Samogitia uses a red background with a black bear who has a white chain around his neck.
In the Bielskis chronicles at the end of the 16th c. we receive confirmation that the Samogitian flag is white and depicts a Lithuanian wheel on the one side. On the other side we find a bear on a red background who his standing on his hind legs and has a white chain around his neck. Kasparas Niesieckis confirms this news in the early 18th c.
In his 1780 description of Samogitia, the theology student Kangas Baginskis confirms that the white flag of the Samogitian principality shows a coat of arms on one side: a black bear with a white chain. On the other side there is a wheel on a red background. The author is very proud of the fact that he has traveled the length and breadth of Samogitia and has recorded all that he has seen. However, it is unlikely that this honorable theology student ever set eyes on the Samogitian flag. Most likely he found out about it through Niesieckis' or some other author's work.
From everything that has been said, we might conclude that the white flag of the Samogitian lands (and later principality) came into being sometime before the administrative reforms of 1565-66. Its main side, to the right of the shaft, simply depicted the Lithuanian Grand Duke's coat of arms; the other side showed the Samogitian coat of arms. It's possible that the black bear decorated both sides of some of the flags.
In Samogitia, both the state army and individual boyars' armed forces used white flags.
The Czartoryski Collection in Cracow is home to the flag of the Samogitian boyar Volodkevicius. It is white with the owner's personal coat of arms. Another white flag dating from the late 17th c. or early 18th c. fell into the hands of the Swedes and may also have originally belonged to a Samogitian.
Other famous relatives also liked white flags. The Lithuanian Birzai and Dubingiai branch of the Radvilians used white flags with a black eagle.
From the 16th c. on, three colors were generally used on Lithuanian flags. The Grand Duchy and the Vilnius regions had red flags, the Lithuanian hetmen and the Trakai region used blue flags and Samogitia - white. Since most flags depicted the Grand Duke's coat of arms and only occasionally displayed local coat of arms (Samogitia was an exception), the main distinctive trait of the flags were their colors. We can only guess why the Samogitians chose white.
In heraldry white tended to symbolize honesty, justice, and innocence. These are ancient Lithuanian values that we often miss in our times. White also represented water and the moon and was a princely color.
In the 16th and 17th centuries the symbolic meaning grew to include monarchic attributes.
The kings of England, Spain, Portugal, France and other countries also chose the color white for their flags.
We know that Polish-Lithuanian leaders presented white flags with black eagles to the Prussian princes during festivities.
We should also mention Simonas Daukantas, who wrote: "The soldiery, ready for battle, carried a white flag in front, on which there was a shield, divided in two: the top half was yellow and the bottom blue. On the yellow field there was an upright crown and on the blue an inverted crown. Sometimes they carried a white flag with a sitting man and a bear's head. On this flag the following words were written: 'God, creator, let your anger fall on the destroyers and find them.'" The historian took these words either straight from one of the Prussian authors - Kasparas Siucas, Kristupas Hartknochtas, Johanas Voigtas or from Teodoras Narbutas.
In spite of everything, this white flag that is closely related to the ancient Lithuanian and Baltic world view, may have roots in much more ancient times and have a long historical tradition.
These are just some possible explanations for the origins of the Samogitian flag. To find a clearer answer, much broader and exhaustive research on Samogitian heraldry is needed.
© Samogitian Cultural
Association Editorial Board, 1998.