On 31 October 1353, on the basis of the privilege passed by the Warmian Chapter, Olsztyn was given its name and was granted the municipal character. Initially the town did not have its own seal and municipal documents were stamped with the one belonging to the Warmian Chapter. The seal bore an image of the half-cross and the Gothic tower, whereas its upper part included the letters SCW – standing for Sigilum capituli Warmiensi, meaning “the seal of the Warmian Chapter”. At the end of the 14th century the city used two seals: the large and the secret one. After centuries the former was identified on the basis of its dimly visible impress attached to an undated document. Only in 1916 the original seal was discovered in the ground close to the castle mill, where it had been probably buried since the time of the Polish-Teutonic war. The latter, it is a secret one, was still in use in 1526. It depicted the wanderer, dressed in a Gothic manner, carrying a pilgrim stick in his right hand and a shell in the left one. His hat was surrounded by an aureole. The wanderer shown on the coat of arms was associated with St James the Elder, the then patron of the first parochial church – the present Cathedral Basilica. Later onhe has been chosen as the protector of Olsztyn.
In the second half of the 16th century the two seals ceased to be used as the city introduced the new ones, whose image retained old elements, though modified to suit the Baroque taste. In that way also the image of St James presented on the seals has changed. The pilgrim was then depicted without an aureole, dressed in a secular manner, which made him look like renowned burghers of Olsztyn. He was wearing a shortened, knee-length dress, poulaines and a small brim hat. The saint was carrying a pilgrim stick in his right hand, while the left one rested on his chest, as if to support the wrap, which covered the back of the figure. During the Baroque period the fashion has changed under the influence of the French style, which also affected the image of St James. We see him wearing a big, musketeer-like hat, tights and trousers that buckled under his knees. Such a depiction of the patron of Olsztyn remained valid as long as Warmia – a dominium of the bishop and the Chapter – stayed under the reign of the Polish king. In the course of centuries the Olsztyn coat of arms underwent some decisive transformations and the image of St James the Elder was complemented with new elements. Moreover, in the 15th century an additional half-cross and the Gothic tower appeared on the shield. After the annexation of Warmia by the Prussians in 1772, the Olsztyn coat of arms became a combination of its former, 15th- and 16th-century elements and attributes of the Warmian Chapter: a half-cross and the city gate with the figure of St James between them. The break with the heraldic tradition of Olsztyn is marked by the partition of Poland.
Some time later the city council was not even able to give an answer to the Königsberg municipal authorities concerning the actual image of the city’s coat of arms. Its form was set later on the basis of the seal impress discovered in the acts of the Polish noble family of Grzymała of Nikielkowo. The new, or rather reconstructed, coat of arms included the elements taken from the emblem of the Warmian Chapter – a characteristic half-cross and the Gothic tower. As for the wanderer, he was dressed in a monastic habit. It was a starting point for further modifications of the coat of arms. Until the beginning of the 20th century the Olsztyn coat of arms became a combination of different styles and heraldic attributes originally belonging to the arms of the bishop and the City Chapter. It was also placed on the wall just above the main entrance to the New City Hall, built in the years 1912–1915. Just before the outbreak of the Second World War, the Nazi authorities removed the figure of the saint and for some years the Olsztyn coat of arms depicted only the half-cross and the Gothic tower.
In the post-war time the early 20th-century form of the coat of arms was approved, which version remained valid until 1973, when due to the expansion of the Olsztyn Tire Company (today Michelen Tire Company) its new form appeared. The shield was then divided into two fields – the white, left one and the right, blue one. The white part shield depicted a wanderer while the blue one showed an image of a cogwheel, being at the same a tire, with stylized golden ears of wheat placed around it. The details were meant to symbolize the industrialization of the city and agricultural character of the region. The tire stood for the Olsztyn Tire Company, while the ears of wheat referred to the Agricultural University of Olsztyn. After some years the municipal authorities made a decision to return to the 14th-century form of the coat of arms. In 1982, after a stormy public discussion, the present version of the coat of arms was approved. It shows the patron of the oldest city parish – the Apostle James the Elder – with an aureole, dressed in a Gothic manner. He was wearing a foot-long, diagonally folded dress, a hat, golden poulaines and carried a pilgrim stick. There is also a heraldic shield, sharply pointed down, which serves as a background for the saint’s image. At the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries the Olsztyn coat of arms was placed in various city parts. Some of the emblems have preserved until now. A very interesting bas-relief, showing an unknown form of the arms, may be found at the top of the main facade of the tenement house in 3 Mrongowiusz Street, built in the years 1905–1910. It is a combination of very unique elements. First of all, its base has the shape of a fishermen boat with a stylised half-cross resembling a flag, placed at its stern. As for St James the Elder, he does not carry a pilgrim stick. Such a form of the arms refers probably to the facts from the life of the patron of Olsztyn, who for many years used to work as a fisherman. The old form of the Olsztyn arms decorates also some interiors. It may be seen in its multi-colour version in the corridor of the parochial house at St James parish as well as in numerous Olsztyn offices. Getting to know the history of the Olsztyn coat of arms will give its inhabitants a chance to feel a part of the history, whereas tourists will easily recognize the city and distinguish it from other Polish towns. The use of the Olsztyn coats of arms is limited by the charter and restricted to the City Council, the President of Olsztyn and the City Office. Any legal or natural person as well as organisational unit willing to make use of the arms is obliged to obtain a permission of the President of Olsztyn, which is also required when using the arms as a trade mark for commercial or advertising purposes.