President Dalia Grybauskaitė

The Historical Lithuanian State Flag

A red cloth charged on both sides with the armoured knight in the colours of the Lithuanian State coat of arms. Ratio - 3:5.

Banners have been used as identifying signs since ancient times, and were most popular in warfare during the Middle Ages, when even army units were named after banners. A Lithuanian banner is mentioned for the first time in the chronicles of Vygand of Marburg, who wrote that during the battle at Bajerburg Castle (near Veliuona) in 1337, Tilman Zumpach, head of the riflemen of the Crusaders, burned the Lithuanian banner with a flaming lance and then mortally wounded the king of Trakai; he did not describe the banner of the king of Trakai. Much more is known about Lithuania's later banners. In the 15th c., Jan Dlugosz claimed that Vytautas brought forty regiments, all carrying red banners, to the Battle of Tannenberg. Thirty of these banners were embroidered with an armoured knight holding a raised sword and riding a white, black, bay or dappled horse, and ten bore the device which Vytautas used to brand his horses (the Columns of the Family Gediminas). According to Dlugosz, these banners were named after territories or dukes: Vilnius, Kaunas, Trakai, Medininkai, Žygimantas Kaributas, Semionas Lengvenis, etc. It is thought that the regiments bearing the Columns of the Family Gediminas came from the territories of Vytautas' patrimonial estates (Duchy of Trakai), and those bearing the knight from the other regions of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.

One can imagine what the military banners of Lithuania's dukes and territories looked like in the first half of the 15th c., from that carried by the cousin of Jogaila, Žygimantas Kaributas (Sigismundus Karibut). His visit to Prague at the invitation of the Czech Hussites in 1422 as delegate of Grand Duke Vytautas, was depicted in a drawing wherein he carries his armorial banner. The banner is charged with a knight; at its top there is a narrow streamer, which the Germans in particular were fond of depicting in the 15th c. Naturally it is difficult to know whether the drawing is a true representation of the actual banner, or simply the work of an artist, albeit one who presumably would have been familiar with the heraldry of Lithuania. But while there are no more reliable sources, the one depicted here can be considered a point of reference for describing what Lithuanian banners may have looked like in the 15th c.

In the Middle Ages, ruler and state were one and the same entity. It is doubtful therefore that one would ever find information on the flag of the State of Lithuania in the 15th c., for back then the Grand Duke represented the state. A distinction emerged only in the 16th c., from which time one also finds mention of a state flag. The first to describe such a flag was Alexander Guagnini, in 1578. The flag of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was made of red silk, and had four tails. Its principal side, to the right of the flag staff, was charged with a white mounted knight underneath the ducal crown; the other side bore an image of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The religious symbolism is understandable, as the highly revered Blessed Virgin Mary was considered the patron saint of the state of Lithuania; even the most prominent state dignitaries favoured her image on their flags. Thus the saying: "Lithuania - land of Mary". Later only the knight is mentioned embroidered on both sides of the State flag. The red flag with its white knight survived until the end of the 18th c., with the last ruler to employ it being the King of Poland and Grand Prince of Lithuania Stanislaus II Augustus (1764-1795). His flag was crimson, had two tails, and was charged with the knight on one side, the ruler's monogram - SAR (Stanislaus Augustus Rex) - on the other. The same monogram was inscribed on the finial.

The old state flag, which originated in the beginning of the 15th c. or even earlier, was never completely forgotten, and in 1905 Jonas Basanavičius suggested that it be made the national flag. When another national flag was legalized in 1918 instead, it was recommended that the State flag also be preserved; although it was unfortunately not legalized at that time, it did in fact appear fairly frequently during the first half of the 20th c., including hoisted at the presidency, during official ceremonies at the War Museum in Kaunas, and elsewhere. Given the significance and history of this flag, the Parliament of the Republic of Lithuania amended the law regarding the state flag on July 8, 2004 to include the old red flag charged with the knight, and called it the historical Lithuanian state flag, in order not to confuse it with the Lithuanian state (national) flag. The law also indicates where and during which State events the historical state flag is to be hoisted, and that it is to be always raised at the Lithuanian Rulers' Palace in Vilnius (presently under construction), at the Trakai Castle, and in the War Museum square in Kaunas. In other words, in those places which are connected in some way with the history of Lithuanian statehood.

From: Edmundas Rimša, The Heraldry of Lithuania, Baltos lankos publishers, 2008.

Last updated 2015.01.05 12:28