At times, it seemed like the Saints were happy to bow before the ferocity of the West Country pack. Bristol, still unsure of their place in Division One next season, played as though their rugby lives depended on it.
With a boardroom shake-up to meet the demands of professionalism, the Bristol side responded with a shake-up of their own; despite the absence of their own two Lions, they shook up a Northampton side bolstered by four of its five representatives in the tour party to South Africa.
But it was an old Lion who made the most impact: Robert Jones. The Bristol, Wales and Lions scrum-half controlled much of the game and reminded that his hunger remains as strong as ever.
He is just the kind of combative, sharp scrum-half Bristol need to pull them into shape as the season reaches its climax, with the West Country side trying to avoid having to play off to stay in Division One. Yesterday, he showed great astuteness, spraying the ball wide quickly or taking on Northampton's loose forwards, Tim Rodber included. The Saints captain was forced to leave the field with a cricked neck but he should be fit for Northampton's next match.
Jones set up the opening Bristol try, creating the space that led to a ruck on the Northampton line. From there, the Bristol No 8 Eben Rollitt was shunted over. Bristol's other linchpin was the captain and flanker Martin Corry. He a typical club stalwart, uncapped but feared by every player he bumps into. Yesterday, he bumped into a lot, setting up Bristol's second try for the centre Fraser Waters. The outside-half Paul Burke converted both tries and kicked two, wind-assisted, penalties in the first half.
Northampton turned up the pressure in the second half and translated the territory into a string of easily kickable chances, all of them bar two squandered by Gregor Townsend. In truth, the Scottish outside-half looked underwhelming, closed down by the impressive Bristol back row.
With the wind behind them in the second half, Northampton found themselves deep in Bristol territory for long spells. It was a mark of Bristol's tenacity that Northampton constantly found themselves shut out near the line, frequently robbed of the ball in the tackle. Only with the game well lost did Northampton manage to cross when the full-back Ian Hunter had the ball worked to him in space.
The Saints do not travel well, with only one win away from home this season. All the same, their record at Franklins Gardens ought to be enough to keep them up. On yesterday's evidence, it would be no more than justice if they, rather than Bristol, were heading for a play-off to save their Division One lives - and a lot of angst for the financiers now in charge of the club.
Bristol: J Lewsey; D Tiueti, F Waters, K Maggs, B Breeze; P Burke, R Jones (R Smith, 80); D Hinkins, B McConnell, K Fulman, P Adams, C Eagle, M Corry (capt), E Rollitt (D Corkery, 45), R Collins.
Northampton: I Hunter; N Beal, J Bell (B Cohen, 35), M Allen, H Thorneycroft; G Townsend, M Dawson; M Volland, A Clarke, M Stewart, J Phillips, J Chandler (S Foale, 67), T Rodber (capt) (C Johnson, 85), G Seeley, J Wright.
Referee: J Pearson (Yarm, Cleveland).