James was the eldest son of William Stanley, sixth earl of Derby, KG, and his wife, Elizabeth de Vere, the daughter of Edward de Vere, 17th earl of Oxford. His mother's uncle was Robert Cecil first Lord of Salisbury, secretary to Queen Elizabeth, younger son of Lord Burghley, whose sister Ann was the wife of the Earl of Oxford.
James was known as Lord Strange (erroneously because his father had not inherited the barony of Strange) until the death of his father on 29 September 1642.
James was the brother of:
James noted in his diary for the date June 25, "I was married 1626." James married at The Hague, Charlotte de La Trémoille, who brought with her a dowry of £24,000. His wife's grandfather was William of Nassau Prince of Orange [William the Silent], whose third wife was Charlotte de Bourbon. They had a daughter, Charlotte [Brabantine de Nassau], who married Claude de Tremouille Duke of Thours [Claude de La Trémoille, duc de Thouars]. Their "heroic" daughter, Lady Charlotte, was the great-aunt of King William III of England.  James wrote "A Prayer for my Wife" praising God, for his bounty in having given me a Wife soe much according to my heart.
James noted in his diary the births and deaths of his children:
His daughter-in-law, Mrs Anne Cotting, the daughter of the Lord Cott. died on 17 June, 1643.
In 1625 James was elected to represent Liverpool. In 1626, James was admitted to the Order of the Bath at the coronation of Charles I, King of England, and the duke of Buckingham ordered joint grants of the offices of Lord lieutenant of Lancashire and Cheshire and chamberlain of he county palatine of Chester, to Lord Strange and his father. That same year his father turned his affairs over to James and retired.
James noted in his diary his arrival at the "Blessed Isle of Man" on 15 June, 1643, and his wife's on 30 July, 1644." She arrived after him because she was besieged in Latham, "Heretofore Thou has saved her, and that with admirable preservation, especiallie at the Seige of Lathum. ... Everliving God! when she hath done Thee much service in this world.
James recorded military dates important to him in his diary:
- 4 March, Wee fired the Spanish Shipp at Wire Water in Lanc &c;
- 18 March, Wee tooke the towne of Lancaster by assault;
- 20 March, Wee tooke Preston by assault;
- 15 December, The Enemies forces were routed at West Hoghton Common in Lanc.
- 3 April, Our Enemies were routed at Stocken heath near Warrington;
- 26 April, Wee relieved Warrington;
- 21 April, The Enemies Cannon played 29 times, the Morter peece 5 times against Lathum;
- 26 April, The Morter peice was taken at Lathum;
- 27 May, The Seige was raised from before Lathum;
- 28 May, The towne of Boulton was taken;
- 15 August, I escaped a great danger of being killed in a Mankes Boat cominge from Captaine Bartlet's Ship at Derby Haven, a shot being made from the saide Shipe (whether by chance or no is doubtfull). It was as is pretended a mistake of one peice for another, but it was charged with Musket Bullets, peices of iron, &c. wch killed my dear freind Mr Rich Weston and a man that rowed, and wounded Colonell Snead in a grevious manner, and I sitting in the midst of them escaped by the great goodness of Almighty God.;
- 29 March, Wee defended the Calfe of Man agt 5 Parliamt Shipes;
On 30 November, 1645, James' son William escaped a great danger at Castle Rushen where he had fallen down a precipice near a stair, he was five years old and held himself by the hands until his sister Mary came to help him. No dates are recorded for Mary's birth or death in James' diary.
On 22 September, 1647, as James was reading alone in his chamber at Castle Rushen about 12 in the night, blood fell in a very strange manner upon my booke.
"Women and children were cut to pieces at Bolton by the Earl of Derby's troops; the Earl of Derby was wounded and taken prisoner at the battle of Worcester; he did die on the scaffold in 1651, at Bolton, the scene of his former exploits, and his estates were 'forfeit' to the Commonwealth."
James Stanley, seventh earl of Derby, royalist army officer, known by some as the "martyr earl" was executed on 15 October 1651 at Bolton, Lancashire, for his loyalty to Charles I, King of England.
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