Rycaut, Sir Paul (1629–1700), author, diplomat and chief secretary, was born in late 1629 and baptised in the parish of St Christopher-le-Stocke, on 23 December 1629, the youngest son of Sir Peter Rycaut and his wife Mary van der Colge (or Vercolge). Rycaut's father was a Dutch financier, whose support for the royalist cause in the civil war resulted in his financial ruin. Rycaut attended Trinity College, Cambridge, graduating BA (1650). He spent much of the 1650s abroad, including sojourns in Madrid and Antwerp. After the restoration he was appointed secretary to Heneage Finch, 3rd earl of Winchelsea, during the latter's embassy to the Ottoman empire. He was made a fellow of the Royal Society on 12 December 1666, and was the author of numerous works, many of which drew on his service overseas, most notably The present state of the Ottoman empire . . . (London, 1666-7). In 1667 Rycaut was appointed as the Levant Company's consul to Smyrna, returning to England in 1678. He continued to write on a wide range of historical subjects, and translated a number of works from Greek and Spanish throughout the 1680s, all of which added to his contemporary literary reputation.
In October 1685 he was appointed secretary to Henry Hyde (qv), 2nd earl of Clarendon, after the latter's appointment as lord lieutenant of Ireland, being knighted on 8 October 1685. Rycaut was formally appointed as chief secretary in Ireland on 9 January 1686, and made an Irish privy councillor and a judge of the Irish admiralty court. The appointment of Clarendon and Rycaut was welcomed by many in Ireland, and Rycaut himself was well regarded, being seen as both reliable and discreet. He was loyal to Clarendon, even after his recall from Ireland. He proved a shrewd observer of Irish affairs, although his political judgement was less acute. Rycaut displayed a disparaging and condescending attitude towards the native Irish, as opposed to his natural sympathies towards the ‘industrious English nation’ (Melvin, ‘Memoranda’, 180). However, religion in itself was not a decisive factor in this assessment. He claimed to be happy and contented with both his job and his posting. However, this changed over time, as it became increasingly obvious that the growing influence of Richard Talbot (qv), earl of Tyrconnell, was undermining Clarendon's government. Indeed, Tyrconnell's policy of admitting catholics to the army was noted by Rycaut, though he does not seem to have grasped its wider significance; on receiving news of the appointment of catholic judges, for example, his stated attitude was to hope that justice would not be impeded by religious division. However, he became concerned with the rapid change in the religious composition of the army, and was very aware of the rumours and paranoia that beset protestants in Ireland. Rycaut was not uncritical of such reports; his preference was for investigation rather than wholesale acceptance. But as protestant fears increased throughout 1686, he became more pessimistic. This was tempered by his belief in the good intentions of James II (qv), especially towards maintaining the act of settlement; however, he realised that catholic expectation was to see it altered. He was dismissive of rumours from July 1686 onwards regarding Clarendon's recall, but he was also aware that the authority of the government was circumscribed by unprecedented circumstances, notably with regard to the control of patronage. His view that Clarendon was secure, due to the protection his presence guaranteed to protestants, failed to take account of Tyrconnell's influence over the king. He remained optimistic till November 1686, by which time he fully expected both his own and Clarendon's recall, though he was surprised at its suddenness. Thomas Sheridan (qv) replaced him as chief secretary on 12 February 1687. It was Rycaut's misfortune to be part of a government that was ultimately rendered irrelevant by the broader implications of James II's policy, as mediated through Tyrconnell.
Rycaut had no further direct dealings with Ireland, though his experience ensured that he was occasionally consulted on Irish affairs. In July 1689 he was appointed as resident in the Hanse towns of Hamburg, Lubeck and Bremen; one unlikely legacy is that, due to the cold weather he experienced, Rycaut apparently introduced the duvet to England. He was recalled in May 1700, and died in London on 16 November 1700, being buried in the church of St Peter and Paul in Aylesford. He never married and had no children. Two portraits of Rycaut are held in the National Portrait Gallery, London. One, by Sir Peter Lely, was engraved as the frontispiece to Rycaut's History of the Turkish empire (London, 1679).