King's Heads and Crowns are about to topple all across Britain and, while the monarchy itself is not in trouble, another centuries-old English institution is.

In the past when times got difficult, Britons flocked to their corner pub to drown their sorrow in a pint of their favorite brew. This time, even the pubs have been hit by the country's enduring economic slump, and a bastion of English life that has survived since the Crusades and Chaucer may be going the way of the empire.

For the first time in decades, British beer drinkers are spending significantly less time in pubs and are drinking less beer. This is the alarming conclusion reached by the brewing industry and trade groups for publicans -- as the innkeepers are called -- after a dramatic slump in beer sales this year.

"They are making shorter visits to pubs and spending much less while they are there," said a spokesman for the brewing firm of Watney, Mann and Truman. He blamed the recession and this year's cool, rainy summer.

"Some public houses will go under," predicted Harry Shindler, spokesman for a national group of pub managers. London financial analysts agree. They believe that several thousand pubs may be forced to close during the next few years after too many were opened or kept going in some places during the good years of the past.

With their homey, quaint and often historic atmosphere and colorful names and outdoor signs, English pubs are a unique and important national institution. They have been centers of social life here since Roman times.

Conversation, court hearings, coroners' inquests, election rallies, hobby club meetings, sports competitions, singing, dancing and drama all have been regular pub functions at one time or another.

Armies for the Crusades were assembled in pubs, and Chaucer's pilgrims drank, ate and slept in beery inns on their way to and from Canterbury. Elizabethan theater and Victorian music halls began as entertainment in English pubs. Darts began as a pub game, and the characteristically English game of cricket was conceived in a pub now called The Bat and Ball in the picturesque village of Hambledon.

Marx and Lenin frequented the same London pub. Thomas Paine, who wrote "The Rights of Man" in the Red Lion in south London, called the English pub "the cradle of American democracy."

Pub buildings and names chronicle English history, identify places in its cities and countryside and preserve otherwise forgotten language. The Green Man dates from pre-Christian Britain; Pig and Whistle is believed to be a corruption of some phrase from medieval English. Elephant and Castle, Angel, Black Friars and World's End are among many landmark places in London that take their names from pubs. e

Kings and queens have been memorialized in countless pub names and signs, in addition to the ubiquitous King's Head, of which there are 400 in England, the 300 Queen's Heads and the more than a thousand Crowns. Some of these were named Pope's Head or Mitre before King Henry VIII broke with the Roman Catholic Church and established the Church of England in the 16th century.

Some pubs claim to date back nearly a thousand years to earlier inns on the same site. Others have been in business in the same building for several centuries and are protected as national landmarks.

English pubs (those in Scotland and Wales are considered transplants) have survived chain ownership by large breweries, mass construction of vast look-alike, mock-Tudor pubs in the suburbs, and big brewers' efforts during the 1960s to replace idiosyncratic local and regional brews with standardized "national" beers.

But pubs are now suffering not only from Britain's worst recession since the 1930s but also from inflated beer prices, the pubs' limited and inflexible legal hours of business, their need to accommodate women and children better during a time of social change and increasing competition from working men's social clubs and the relatively new carryout trade.

The price of a pint now averages about $1, twice what it was just a few years ago, in a country with about half of the median income of the United States.

Working men's clubs, which are technically private, can stay open longer, cater more easily to families and offer much larger slot machine jackpots -- $500 or more compared to just over $2 in pubs. They can charge less for beer because they buy it in bulk at a greater discount.

Because of the reduced drinking, British beer production fell by 7 percent the third quarter of 1980 and about 3 to 4 percent so far for the year, according to the Brewers' Society.

In other economic downturns in the recent past, Britons continued to flock to pubs, simply buying cheaper beer, according to brewing industry analysts. But now they are drinking less.

"We were hurt by the poor summer, which is one of our two big periods of peak sales," said the Watney's spokesman. "The other is the Christmas holidays, and we're watching now to see how that goes."

The recession has hit "good drinking areas" especially hard, according to pub managers' spokesman Shindler. Record postwar unemployment has been concentrated in heavy manufacturing regions where the tradition of socializing at the local pub had remained strong.

Publicans are competing more vigorously for business by remodeling and serving more and better food at lower prices than restaurants.

They also are lobbying for relaxed restrictions on the presence of children (now banned from all but special family rooms allowed in relatively few pubs) and for longer and more flexible hours. Britain's restrictive pub laws, imposed during World War I to keep factory workers sober, limit the open hours generally from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 11 p.m., with some local variations.

The English pub and Britain's beer industry, with an annual volume of more than $10 billion, are facing the same shakeout forced on the rest of the economy by the severe recession and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's survival-of-the-fittest policies. But there is little doubt that many of them will somehow adapt and survive as they have through centuries past.