origin of the phrase ‘as poor as a church mouse’

Literally denoting a mouse which lives in a church, the noun church mouse has long been used figuratively and allusively of a person likened to such a mouse, in terms of its proverbial attributes, especially in being impoverished or quiet.

For example, the Anglo-Welsh historian and political writer James Howell (circa 1594-1666) recorded the following proverb in Παροιμιογραϕια [Paroimiographia]: Proverbs, or, Old sayed sawes & adages, in English (or the Saxon toung) Italian, French and Spanish whereunto the British, for their great antiquity, and weight are added (London: Printed by J.G., 1659):

As hungry as a Church-mouse.

The proverbial phrase as poor as a church mouse, meaning very poor, impoverished, is first recorded in The Royalist (London: Printed for Jos. Hindmarsh […], 1682), a comedy by the English author Thomas D’Urfey (circa 1653-1723)—Sir Paul Eitherside, “a Justice of Peace, and Orator that takes Bribes on both sides” (i.e., both Whigs and Tories *) declares the following about Heartall, a friend of Sir Charles Kinglove’s, the Royalist:

’Gad if he threatens me agen, I’ll take the Law of him; I know how to deal with such Tories as himself; I’ll hoist him into Westminster-Hall with a wet finger, and so drill him from Court to Court, till he’s as poor as a Church-Mouse, or an honest Attorney.

* The noun Tory represents an anglicised spelling of Irish *tóraidhe, literally a pursuer, from Irish tóir, to pursue. Originally, in the 17th century, Tory denoted any of the dispossessed Irish who became outlaws, subsisting by plundering and killing the English settlers and soldiers. Later, Tory was often applied to any Irish Papist or Royalist in arms. In 1679-80, Tory became a nickname given by the Exclusioners (i.e., the Whigs) to those who opposed the Exclusion Bill, i.e., a bill brought before parliament in 1679, during the reign of Charles II, for preventing James, Duke of York, the king’s brother, from succeeding to the crown, on the ground of his being a Roman Catholic.

The metaphor occurs in To a Lady, on showing some Resentment to a Curate, for looking up and smiling as he occasionally passed her window, by ‘Anglicanus’, published in The Gentleman’s Magazine, and Historical Chronicle (London: Printed for D. Henry, and R. Cave) of September 1755:

The old proverb comes pat
That says ‘laugh and be fat;’
Let that have due weight in this matter:
For, unlike some church drones,
I am meer skin and bones,
Without other hopes to grow fatter.

But if, plump as John Bright,
I’m expos’d for a sight,
Or, like church-mouse, half-starved and thin;
Whether pale—black—or brown
I regard not I own,
If I find but contentment within.

The phrase occurs in The Young Philosopher (Dublin: Printed for P. Wogan, H. Colbert, [&c.], 1798), by the English poet and novelist Charlotte Smith (1749-1806):

“Farming, Major Delmont,” said he, “never attracted me by the lucrative prospects it offered, but because I hoped to keep myself independent by it; and if it was in my nature to retort upon you, I should say, that I have done better to engage the little I had in any honest way of making its interest, than to lose it, as I am afraid you have done, among sharpers.”
“Oh no!” replied the Major with astonishing sang froid, “devil take me if I have lost a guinea among the Greeks, as you suppose; it has been all among ourselves; honest fellows who never do any thing but fight, or play, or love, or drink, and who are as poor as church mice; for example, I have taken up fifteen hundred pounds, for which I expect you to join me in security, to pay Jemmy Winsly, as honest a lad as ever lived.”